Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and Win Tin, right, senior leader of her National League for Democracy, observe a making of hand weaving in Yangon, Myanmar. (Khin Maung Win/AP)

For most of two decades, while Aung San Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest, her deputy Win Tin was condemned to solitary confinement in prison, denied even pen and paper by his jailers.

When she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her attempts to bring democracy to Burma, he was comparatively forgotten by the outside world.

But today, 83-year-old Win Tin is out of jail, free to write a weekly column and broadcast a weekly radio show, using satire to mercilessly mock the government, the military and their business allies. And, as Suu Kyi charts a course of compromise with the army, he is also one of the few people in Burma who commands enough respect that he can criticize her and get away with it.

“Some of us would like to push the military into the Bay of Bengal,” he said with a smile. “She only wants to push them into Kandawgyi Lake,” a reference to a lake in the heart of Rangoon, the former capital.

With this kind of uncompromising talk, Win Tin is a symbol of the extraordinary freedom — especially the freedom of speech and freedom from fear — that has come to Burma in the past few years. But he is also a prominent reminder that reform is only in its early stages, and that Burma is still a long way from becoming a full democracy and ending decades of military dictatorship.

More than four years after he was released from prison, Win Tin is still 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. His shirt also showcases his feelings about the broader changes that have yet to take place in Burma, a country renamed Myanmar by its military rulers.

“Although I am a free man, I feel my whole country is still in jail,” he said. “There are no great prison walls, but we are still in chains.”

Over the past two years, Burma’s military-backed regime has loosened its tight grip on the country to the extent that Suu Kyi, released from house arrest in 2010, was allowed to travel abroad in May 2012 for the first time in 24 years. In response, the United States has gradually lifted sanctions imposed after the violent suppression of pro-democracy protests in 1988, sending an ambassador to the country last year for the first time in more than two decades.

But the Burmese military is still calling the shots politically under a constitution it wrote that guarantees it a quarter of the seats in parliament, allows it to declare a state of emergency and dismiss a democratically elected government, and still blocks democracy icon Suu Kyi from becoming president, even if her party were to win an election. And with its former officers in key roles, the army still controls the bureaucracy and large swaths of the economy.

One of Burma’s leading journalists and writers, Win Tin spent decades struggling against the military regime and the growing censorship it imposed. He moved into politics when he helped launch a new political party, the National League for Democracy, with Suu Kyi after the 1988 protests. She and other NLD leaders nicknamed him Saya, which means “The Wise One.”

The party won a landslide election victory two years later, only to have the result annulled by the country’s military rulers and its leaders rounded up.

The regime was always reluctant to jail Suu Kyi, partly because of her status as the daughter of the hero of the nation’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule, Gen. Aung San, who is known as the founder of the modern Burmese army. They had no such compunction on dealing with her deputy Win Tin.

While she was confined to her home and kept away from her family for most of the period between 1989 to 2010, he was confined to a tiny prison cell — tortured, he said, through sleep deprivation and denied adequate medical treatment for a heart condition.

Their different experiences over the past two decades may have shaped their differing attitudes toward the military now, he said. “She thinks she can persuade all the military leaders to become her friends and come to her side,” Win Tin said. “But people suffered a lot [under military rule]. Without pushing the military out, we won’t achieve any democracy, any human rights.”

Long incarceration

Win Tin, with his round face, large glasses and healthy head of wavy white hair, is incisive, witty and charming. Although he walks slowly with the aid of a cane, he has seemingly lost none of the mental acuity that made him such a relentless foe of the military.

Win Tin recalls smuggling fragments of brick into his cell during his long incarceration, grinding them into an orange paste and using the paste to write poems and political thoughts on his cell walls, just to stay sane. Time and again, the military offered to release him if he would promise to renounce politics, but every time he refused.

Finally freed in 2008, he campaigned tirelessly for Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest; when she was briefly jailed in 2009 for violating the terms of her detention, he kept up a vigil outside the prison. Since she was finally freed in 2010, the pair have, however, found themselves drifting apart. While she advocated conciliation with the military, he took a
harder-line approach.

In 2012, their party decided to participate in a series of parliamentary elections under the military constitution. It was a decision Win Tin opposed, but once it was taken, he took part in the campaign.

The party won 43 of the 45 seats up for grabs, and Suu Kyi entered parliament.

These days, as she spends more and more time either in parliament or on foreign trips, Suu Kyi and Win Tin appear to have become increasingly estranged.

Suu Kyi is believed to be trying to negotiate a deal with military officials to amend the constitution so that she could one day become president. Apparently keen to win their trust, she told the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs” radio show recently that she is “fond” of the army.

But Win Tin senses danger in agreeing to small changes that would leave the military’s role still entrenched. “Some of us would like to withdraw this constitution and create a new one,” he said.

As foreign governments remove sanctions and investors come into Burma, the pressure on the regime to agree to further changes may dissipate. At the same time, Win Tin warns, his fellow pro-democracy politicians are already becoming comfortable with the limited changes the regime is offering, accepting a seat among the elite and losing their hunger for real change.

“Many journalists, many politicians may think the situation they are in is good enough,” he said. “They are quite contented, and they do not want to attack the government. They don’t want to be outspoken. That is a problem.”

Some foreign diplomats say they find Win Tin unyielding, out of tune with the new mood of compromise. At the headquarters of the rival National Democratic Force, his name does not go down well. Seeking compromise with the military, the party split from the NLD to contest general elections under the military constitution in 2010, and there is still some bad feeling between the two sides.

“He is a madman,” said Khin Maung Swe, the party’s 71-year-old chairman, who spent nearly as long in prison himself. “He just wants to die in prison as a martyr.”

But across town, other former political prisoners, such as 37-year-old Aye Aung, who was sentenced to 59 years in jail in 1998 but released last July, says Win Tin is right to stick to his principles. Suu Kyi, he argues, has been losing touch with the people since she joined parliament and is not taking a strong enough line with the army. The military is so rooted in power, he warns, “we need a revolution” to remove it.

Political prisoners remain

At formal events, Win Tin’s colleagues wear traditional collarless shirts and jackets; he says that he often feels “very awkward” in his blue shirt but that it can’t be helped. Although about 1,000 political prisoners have been released in a series of amnesties in the past decade, more than 200 remain behind bars from the era of the pro-democracy movement. More have been arrested in the past year, for taking part in unlicensed protests or for involvement in separatist movements.

The government last month convened a committee to review the cases of everyone still behind bars, fulfilling a promise made just before President Obama’s visit in November. But released prisoners complain that they are still routinely denied passports, as well as entry to universities to resume studies interrupted by long jail terms.

Despite his concerns, Win Tin ended a two-hour interview on an optimistic note. While he has reservations about her tactics, he still strongly believes in Suu Kyi’s commitment to democracy and obviously still respects her. If anyone can tame the generals, she can, he says.

Meanwhile, rising press freedom and growing political awareness among the people have created a powerful force for change.

At the headquarters of his own party, the 72-year-old party secretary, Nyan Win, said Win Tin’s viewpoints, and his warnings about the risks the party has taken, still command enormous respect.

“We don’t want to say his opinion is wrong. Maybe it is right,” he said. “We are trying to tame the lion, and there are many risks.”