Mind of steel, heart of gold: tribute to U Win Tin

Debby Chan Sze Wan, PhD candidate at the Department of Politics and Public Administration, the University of Hong Kong.

The great Chinese philosopher Confucius said, “The superior man does not, even for the space of a single meal, act contrary to virtue. In moments of haste, he cleaves to it. In seasons of danger, he cleaves to it.”[i]

Most people want to speak their minds freely. However, if we have to pay a heavy price for speaking the truth, or we can gain favour by compromising our conscience, many of us may reconsider. Despite losing his freedom, his home, his upper teeth due to torture in the prison, and his adopted daughter who was forced into exile, the late U Win Tin (1930-2014) categorically stated that he could not bow down to the Burmese military regime.[ii] He was 59-years-old when he was sent to prison in 1989. He could withstand terrible suffering not because he had better ability to languish in jail; it was due to his deep conviction that Burma should be a democracy. Without any doubt, U Win Tin was a superior man even in dark times.

U Win Tin was known as the longest-serving political prisoner in Burma. In the aftermath of the crackdown of the 1988 Uprising, the lifelong journalist co-founded the National League for Democracy (NLD) with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Owing to his involvement in the NLD, U Win Tin was arrested in 1989. He was initially sentenced to three years’ imprisonment with hard labour. The military junta always tried to co-opt him however. At one time, the junta brought him out of prison to a propaganda exhibition in the city, and he was asked to comment on the show. U Win Tin used that opportunity to slam the military government.[iii] Later on, his prison term was extended twice. In 1992, he was sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment for inciting a riot in the prison. In 1996, the regime added another seven years to his prison term after he sent a complaint about the inhuman treatment in prison to the United Nations. Being known as an unbreakable man, the military regime used various means to destroy his morale. He was constantly placed under solitary confinement, sometimes in a dog cell.[iv] Even though he was elderly, he was not exempted from torture. Owing to beating, malnutrition, and denial of medication, he became very weak physically. To the government’s disappointment however, U Win Tin’s mind remained very strong. He never betrayed his beliefs and had no regrets despite the torment he underwent for almost 20 years. Although there was no sign that the military government would be overthrown, he made every endeavour to contribute to democracy in the country because he believed that it would benefit society and the next generation.[v]

After being held behind bars for 19 years, U Win Tin was released in 2008. On the day the 78-year-old walked out from prison, he engaged in politics again. He refused to return the blue prisoner shirt, and instead swore to put on the blue shirt everyday until all political prisoners were freed. He kept his promise until his last breath.

U Win Tin always thought about others’ well-being before his own. Back in the 1950s, he used half of his salary to support fellow journalists who were prosecuted for their political views.[vi] When family and friends sent him food in jail, he shared it with other prisoners because life in prison was really miserable.[vii] As a former political prisoner, he empathized with the predicament of political prisoners. After he was freed, he began to use his own money to help other political prisoners. Admirers wanted to support his livelihood, but he insisted on living a simple life with two small meals per day and stayed at his friend’s wooden shack. Instead, he used all donations to help other former political prisoners. Upon recommendation by friends, he set up the U Win Tin Foundation to provide assistance to political prisoners and former political prisoners in 2012.

Like U Win Tin, thousands of former political prisoners in Burma have sacrificed themselves for social and political transformation in the country. Their devotion should be honoured. After being released from prison, they continue to face lots of changes in the society. Many of them for instance, suffered from chronic diseases like tuberculous, hepatitis B and heart disease after long term imprisonment. Some of them have difficulties in finding jobs because of poor health and being deprived of education while in prison. Seeing the needs of the former political prisoners, the U Win Tin Foundation provides free medical care, financial assistance and scholarship for tertiary education to ease their difficulties. As of March 2015, 136 political prisoners and 448 former political prisoners, journalists and their families have received assistance from the Foundation.

Burmese President Thein Sein promised to free all political prisoners by the end of 2013. Currently, there are at least 173 political prisoners in Burma. Another 316 activists are awaiting trial for their political beliefs or rights defending activities.[viii] Only when democracy and the rule of law exist, will laws not be used to restrain citizens’ human rights, and abuses by authorities not be condoned with impunity. Equally important, the victims of gross human rights violations should have the right to remedy. Former political prisoners and other victims of human rights abuse should have access to justice. Furthermore, there must be reparation for harm that they have suffered. The state should restore the victim to his original situation before the abuse took place. Monetary compensation has to be provided to victims for their loss, while medical and psychological care should be offered for their rehabilitation. Moreover, the victims and their family should have the right to learn about the truth of the human rights violations concerned. And the government should apologize to the victims and set up mechanisms to prevent the repetition of such human rights violations.[ix]

Prior to the right to remedy being attained in Burma, the U Win Tin Foundation is playing a significant role in alleviating the hardship of the courageous people who have made sacrifices for democratic change in Burma. While many people in Burma continue to respect U Win Tin, donations to the Foundation have gradually decreased with his death, according to volunteers of the Foundation. To sustain his initiative, it is hoped that more people can give a hand to current and former political prisoners in Burma.


[i] The quote is from Chapter 4, Analects, translated by the USC US-China Institute, University of Southern California. Original Chinese text is, “君子無終食之間違仁,造次必於是,顛沛必於是。” http://china.usc.edu/confucius-analects-4#sthash.LS9a0Jps.dpuf

[ii] “Burmese Dissident is Tested Anew as Party Agonizes over Elections”, New York Times, 3 October 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/03/world/asia/03myanmar.html?_r=0.

[iii] “Human Rights Yearbook 1996: Burma – Pleading Not Guilty at Insein”, Human Rights Documentation Unit of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, July 1997. Available at http://www.ibiblio.org/obl/docs/96-04-PLEADING.PDF.

[iv] Dog cell is a kennel of the military dog. The prisoners were locked inside the small cell while the fierce dogs could walk freely outside the cell and bark at them. It is a degrading treatment to humiliate political prisoners as well as a psychological torture.

[v] See interview on “The Naked Truth of Myanmar: a film portrait of U Win Tin” by the ElectricalFilm in 2014. The video is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAg77ib3Hi0.

[vi] Kyaw Phyo Tha, “Despite a Frugal Existence, a Former Inmate Spends and Spends”, Irrawaddy, 18 December 2013, http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/despite-frugal-existence-former-inmate-spends-spends.html.

[vii] “The Naked Truth of Myanmar”.

[viii] “Chronology for March 2015”, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), 9 April 2015, http://aappb.org/2015/04/2629/.

[ix] See Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 16 December 2005: 60/147 Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International humanitarian Law.

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