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

March 12, 2013

Win Tin, right, with Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, left, in October 2011. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

How do you survive two decades in jail, most of it spent in solitary confinement, and still stay sane?

Somehow, former Burmese political prisoner Win Tin achieved just that. Now 83 years old, his body is frail and his heart is weak, but he seems to have lost none of the mental sharpness and wit that made him such a formidable foe of Burma's military junta for decades. During a two-hour meeting last month, he spoke engagingly and with humor about his experiences in prison and his views about the direction in which the country was headed.

Win Tin made his living through words. He was one of Burma's leading journalists, and an author and poet to boot. In 1988, after a series of pro-democracy protests were violently suppressed by the military regime, he helped Aung San Suu Kyi found a new political party, the National League for Democracy. The following year, he was locked away in prison. The military feared his ability to communicate so much that they largely kept him in solitary confinement, and even denied him pen, paper and reading matter. Often, the cells next door were kept vacant, he said, so he could not pass messages to his fellow prisoners.

He said he was tortured through sleep deprivation during his interrogation. When he entered jail, he told me he was forced to share a cell meant for military dogs. Then he was moved to solitary confinement, but had to sleep for years on a bamboo mat on a concrete floor. Instead of a pen and paper, he would smuggle fragments of brick into his cell, grind them into a paste and use that to write on his cell walls.

In 2005, pro-democracy activists began a campaign to wear white clothes in solidarity with prisoners whose uniforms were of that color. Unable to arrest people for wearing white, the military found the sort of solution only a dictatorship could devise: they changed prisoners’ uniforms to blue.

Inside prison, conditions eased marginally over the years. Win Tin said he was eventually given a bed. By putting it on its end, and using the slats as a ladder, he could haul himself up to the cell's high, barred window. From there, he could sometimes call out to prisoners in neighboring cells. At other times, they communicated by tapping on the walls.

Later in his incarceration, his solitary confinement was eased, allowing him occasional contact with his fellow prisoners, he said. He was allowed a visitor for 15 minutes every two weeks, he told me, although wardens usually forbade them to discuss politics. At one point, fellow prisoners smuggled in a radio, and they produced a rudimentary “newspaper."

In 2005, Win Tin assembled with around 200 prisoners who had been told they would be released. As they waited behind the prison gates, he and a few colleagues were asked to wait, ostensibly to meet the home minister. They waited in a small room; the minister never arrived; they were sent back to their cells.

It took another three years for Win Tin to be finally released, but even then there was nearly a last-minute glitch after he refused to remove his prison uniform, out of solidarity with his colleagues who remained behind bars. The prison governor lectured him on the need to surrender his uniform: he sat with his fingers in his ears. At one point, he said he would leave naked but would not put on civilian clothes. Eventually, the authorities relented. That uniform now sits in a box at a relative’s house.

More than four years after he was released from prison, Win Tin is till wearing a blue shirt, the color of his prison uniform, and says he will not wear any other color until every political prisoner in his country is free.

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
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Max Fisher · March 12, 2013