A prisoner’s pursuit of democracy in Burma

Win Tin in his home on June 26, 2013, in Rangoon, Burma (Lillian Cunningham/The Washington Post).

Win Tin at his home in Rangoon, Burma, on June 26 (Lillian Cunningham/The Washington Post).

“I hope you can understand what I mean,” Win Tin says. His English is muted, half-swallowed. It gets caught in the drum of monsoon rain on the roof, though the downpour is slowing with the afternoon. “I’m old. My memory is fading. I lose many memories of wording and expression and phrases and thoughts.”

A longtime Burmese journalist, Win Tin sharpened his words into a tool for activism in the late 1980s, when he co-founded the National League for Democracy (NLD) with Aung San Suu Kyi during a period of political turmoil in Burma.

As a young man, he had met Suu Kyi's father, Gen. Aung San, who led the country's independence movement until his assassination in 1947. Their brief interaction set Win Tin on the path to becoming a writer. Nearly half a century later, he would meet the general's daughter during the 1988 protests and set out on yet another path, as an activist.

Not long after beginning their work to promote democracy, both Suu Kyi and Win Tin became political prisoners under the country’s military regime — he at age 60, she at 44. While under house arrest, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and soon became the icon of democratic opposition in Burma. Win Tin, who lacked Suu Kyi's family prominence and Oxford education, spent nearly 20 years in jail, first in a cell designed for military dogs and then in solitary confinement. Although released in 2008, he continues to wear the blue of a Burmese prison uniform. He says it symbolizes his belief that the country is still behind bars.

In his 84 years, Win Tin has seen Burma (also known as Myanmar) under British colonial rule, Japanese occupation, independence, a military junta and now a partly civilian government. Since his release, he has been in and out of the hospital many times because of a heart ailment and the aftereffects of harsh treatment while incarcerated. He returned to the hospital again for care soon after giving this interview in his home in late June.

Outside Win Tin's home in Rangoon, Burma, on June 26, 2013 (Lillian Cunningham/The Washington Post).

Outside Win Tin's home in Rangoon, June 26 (Lillian Cunningham/The Washington Post).

His home is a small, borrowed guesthouse on a friend’s property in the former capital of Rangoon, as Win Tin left prison with no money or property. On one bright green wall, he has since hung a portrait of Suu Kyi, who recently announced her desire to be president. On another hangs an old framed poster from Reporters Without Borders that marked his 75th birthday and 16th year of imprisonment.

In this interview, edited for length and clarity, Win Tin reflects on his own story, the story of his country, and how the two narratives intertwine.

You have said that meeting General Aung San once in your childhood had a strong effect on you. What was the story?

That was a long time ago. At that time I was too young, I was only about 15, and we were residing in a small village. Aung San was going to the front and one of his aides was my uncle. At that time, the allied planes and allied warships are busy shooting. So they are returning through the night and they stop in my village, at my house, and there I met him. He was not very easy to talk to. He was a very tacit man, a silent man.

The only thing I asked him is that I would like to join the military, because at that time the Burmese army was very popular. Every young man was very much excited to join the army and join the fighting. He thought for a moment and asked me whether I go to school, whether I study. I said yes. He said: Please, we have a lot of people who fight in our army and for our cause, but we haven’t got enough educated persons. You better go to school and learn and continue your studies.

I was very impressed with his asking to continue my studies. From that time on, I worked for learning and for studying and for writing. I became a journalist up until I joined the NLD party, when I became a sort of politician.

Who inspired you the most in your life? And how optimistic are you about the future of democracy in Myanmar?

I must say it like this. I was not a politician since very young in my age. During my high-school days, I was one of the leaders of the student union and, at 16 or 17, I became president of the student union. I was involved in some student movements. Apart from that, I did not spend much time with politics.

All the time I intended to become a journalist or writer or poet. So I was doing that until I was about 60, when this democratic popular movement happened in the 1980s. I was president of the writers and literary union. With that position, I became one of the founding members of the NLD party. There are only three of us left in the party—Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and myself and U Tin Oo—who were founding members. That’s why I have to stay on. Deep down in my heart, I’m always a journalist and that means I’m for democratic ways of life. Democracy is always in my heart, and democracy is always my intention and the real target of my life.

I express myself very freely and very democratically, not always along party lines. My opinions on political changes and political movements, some of them are rather deviated from party lines. Sometimes I have to express my opinions, which are rather different from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. I don’t mind. All the time I’m a media man, and media man means democracy.

I have really hope and expectations that this democratic society will be formed in Burma one day, that the democratic way of life will happen in Burma—at the same time that there will be democratic institutions and political parties and also democratic government and parliament. The expectation of democracy is all the time with me. In the future, these democratic activities and endeavors will take fruit in Burma.

During your time in prison, did you ever lose hope for yourself and your country’s future?

I’m an old man now. I don’t want to discuss my future. It might be very short and very dim. Although we have passed through many times of a one-party system or military rule, we still think that one day we will suddenly have some democratic society. But it’s not yet. Many people die, many people suffer. Not only in the big cities. When you go out to the countryside, people suffer a lot. We activists and politicians, we always try for democracy. The struggle is very long and very hard.

A painting of Aung San Suu Kyi, by Khin Maung Yin, hangs on the wall of Win Tin's home (Lillian Cunningham/The Washington Post).

A painting of Aung San Suu Kyi, by Khin Maung Yin, hangs on the wall of Win Tin's home (Lillian Cunningham/The Washington Post).

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, of course, she is no god. She is no god of politics. She has a lot of shortcomings and she has some mistakes, but she is the only person nowadays—not only for us, not only for NLD—but for the Burmese people. She’s got the intelligence; she’s got the capacity and the political thinking. Nowadays she is the only one who can lead the people, lead the new generation. So we have faith in her.

Can you explain the differences you have with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?

Yes, I always say that the way Daw Suu was brought up was quite different. I came from a very small village, a small town, and I studied only in Burma. Our education system is not very high. My bringing-up was quite normal for the underdeveloped way. She was brought up in developed countries like India, and she studied at the very top universities. That is a difference.

Another difference is that she was brought up in a family of generals, like Aung San, and she has played at that very high echelon of power for a long time, although she didn’t involve herself in their politics. When she came back, she was over 40 and I was about 60. We met at the popular uprising in 1988. That popular uprising was led by the people: students and young men and workers and peasants. Ordinary people. At that time there was no person who was the leader or the director. No, we joined the uprising as activists for democracy, activists for human rights. We joined together.

There were always differences there between her and myself. Although I worked as a writer and a journalist, my intellectual level is quite different. And not only is my social leaning and political expectation also quite different from hers, but as I told you she was brought up from the military government, in the military environment, a military family. In Burma, there’s no more military rule. But still all these men—including the president, the chairman of the parliament, ministers and so on—they are military. They encourage military rules and military thinking and military philosophy and expectations. That’s a problem. What I fear is that, although Burma is heading for democracy, they are not a democratic element.

Although they claim to be democratic, there is some sort of bad smell of military in them that’s still there that, time to time, comes out of the mouth of higher people like the president or members of parliament.

Aung San Suu Kyi sits in a session of parliament in Naypitaw, Burma, on June 27, 2013 (Lillian Cunningham/The Washington Post).

Aung San Suu Kyi sits in a session of parliament in Naypitaw, Burma, on June 27, 2013 (Lillian Cunningham/The Washington Post).

But Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, she is always very cooperative and very kind and very welcoming toward the military. That is our difference. She always said that she would like to welcome the military to join all the country’s activities for democratic changes, and she said that, without any cooperation from the military, we will never be able to achieve all these changes for reform.

My interpretation is another thing. I said: No, not this, not now. They are outsiders, they are outside the circle. I said the military must change, the military must not intervene in the political mettles of the country.

Does Aung San Suu Kyi still consult you for decisions?

We meet from time to time, maybe every month or so. We have a very good relationship. She is a very cultured person, very kind and very normal. We have no conflict at all. I express myself and she expresses herself. We want ourselves to be a big party and a big organization, with genuine democracy as a target.

Do you think there is still a chance that the military will take over? 

I don’t think the military will be able to take power again. That’s my conviction. Everywhere people are protesting and fighting back. They really refuse the military power again. This is the message that people are giving to the government. They know it. Not only that, the military knows it.

Of course, the military is still powerful and institutionally it’s still in the ruling population, but in a sense people’s message is: No, it’s enough. But of course they are the big organization, the big institution, the big power. About 70 percent of the country’s economy is in their hands. So military power is there.

How confident are you that your party can win the majority in 2015?

We can become the majority. We believe that. In the 1990 election, we won the majority—and at that point our party was very nascent, very young and just formed. We had no organization, nothing. We formed our party in 1988, in September. Then the election was in 1990. It was very short, but we won.

We were not known at the time, we were nameless and people didn’t really know our political opinions. Even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was not well known at the time. Only the name—we knew the name of Aung San Suu Kyi, and we knew that she was the daughter of Aung San, but that’s all. Not only that, but at that time we were inside the jail and behind the bars. I and Tin Oo and many leaders. There was no leadership, but still we were elected.

We hope that we will have the real support of the people in 2015. We’ll win it, we know that. Maybe we will not win in a landslide majority, but we’ll win it.

Do you feel as hopeful that you will see real changes to the constitution?

When I came out of jail in 2008, I met many media. The very first thing I said was, Burma is still in prison. All the population is behind bars, I think. There are many political prisoners still behind bars and left behind in the jails. That’s why I will keep the dress of the jail, the prison. At least I can keep the color—the blue color.

Win Tin wears the blue of his former prison uniform in his home on June 26, 2013, in Rangoon, Burma (Lillian Cunningham/The Washington Post).

Win Tin wears the blue of his former prison uniform in his home on June 26, 2013, in Rangoon, Burma (Lillian Cunningham/The Washington Post).

At that time I told the media, this constitution should be shed. It should be written again and a new constitution should be set up. That was five years ago and it was not successful, but I’m still of the same opinion.

But how do you change the constitution? There are very hard points, very serious points, to change. That the military will play the leading role in politics—that is one very hard one to change. Also, there is some section about security and defense counsel. According to that section, the military can always take power again because they can proclaim an emergency in the country. And some sections are there to keep Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president. I think without changing this constitution, there is no chance for real reform to happen in Burma.

Do you think there is hope for an Arab Spring-like movement to bring in democracy?

We had our own spring in 1988. We had mass movements with millions of people coming out and going against the military. We had that experience already. Since then, there are many springs. I think we’ll go on to have spring, and spring again. The only thing of course is that, though we have struggled and these political powers are receding, maybe people are getting a bit tired, I think.

Another thing: they have never enjoyed such freedoms as freedom of press, freedom to express their thinking. They haven’t experienced that for a long time—50 years—now they are experiencing it. Sometimes they believe the government propaganda and they don’t want to be very active and struggling, that is a problem. But I hope that the spirit of spring is there and we’ll have another spring.

What about recruiting new members to the party?

Without any generational changes and generational development, our party will never have success. Even Aung San Suu Kyi is now 68. Sixty-eight for the Burmese people is too old. What we need is a younger generation.

Our policy and our principle is that we’ll bring down our leadership level (or average age) to 50. Up until now we could not do it—our leadership level is now over 70. In the time of Aung San, he and his friends were only about 30. We have experience, we have history, but nowadays everybody is too old.

Lillian Cunningham reported from Burma through her participation in the East West Center’s Jefferson Fellowship.

Read also:

In Burma, democratic conscience still wears blue

How former Burmese political prisoner Win Tin survived 20 years in jail

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Also on On Leadership

Only 4 out of 10 federal employees believe they're rewarded for good work