(New York) – Human Rights Watch mourns the passing of U Win Tin, one of Burma’s most prominent human rights activists and journalists. A longtime journalist who later spent years as a political prisoner, he died of renal failure on April 21, 2014, at the age of 84.
“U Win Tin was the exemplar of dignified courage and principle against decades of brutal military rule,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director. “Human Rights Watch campaigned for his release for many years. We are deeply saddened by his death – an irreplaceable loss for Burma’s human rights community.”
U Win Tin worked for decades as a journalist and editor, writing trenchant critiques of military and socialist rule between 1962 and 1988 in the face of crushing censorship and government intimidation. In 1988, he helped form the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD).
He was arrested on July 4, 1989, along with hundreds of political activists because of his public criticism of military rule and his close connections to democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He was convicted and sentenced to 21 years in Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison. He was sentenced to a further seven years in prison in 1996 after he sent a report to the United Nations detailing poor prison conditions, including torture, mistreatment, and lack of adequate medical care. He was held in solitary confinement in a prison “dog cell,” denied medical treatment and adequate food and water, and at times tortured by prison and security officials. His mistreatment in prison, routinely denied by the military government, was detailed in his 2010 memoirs titled What’s That? A Human Hell.
Burma’s government released U Win Tin in a general amnesty in September 2008, although notably he refused to accept the amnesty as he believed it would denote that he was guilty of the trumped-up charges against him. The authorities finally released him unconditionally, and he immediately resumed public criticism of the then-ruling State Peace and Development Council. He also set about reforming the NLD, a target of over two decades of government restrictions and harassment. He continued to wear a blue prison shirt after his release to show solidarity with political prisoners still behind bars and the shirt became his trademark way to show his commitment to campaign until the authorities released every political prisoner.
U Win Tin was a leader to future generations in Burma, encouraging younger activists and journalists to stand up to misrule and corruption, and to promote basic freedoms of assembly and free expression. He convened an NLD youth group to promote greater inclusion of younger activists into politics. He also helped former political prisoners reintegrate into the Burmese community, and financially assisted, within his small means, their families, who the authorities had also victimized for many years.
“U Win Tin inspired an entire generation of activists who have taken up his call and struggle to make Burma a rights-respecting democracy,” Roth said. “His bravery in the face of cruel hardship continues to echo through Burma’s fragile reform process.”