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A conversation with U Win Tin

Mizzima News - In 1989 he was sentenced to prison, without any proof of having committed a crime. He was released almost 20 years later, in September 2008, though he does not see it that way himself. He did not want to be released out of pity for his old age, but only on the basis of the charges against him. This is one of the reasons why he still wears his blue prison shirt. He may be outside the prison walls, but he still is not free to do as he wants in his country.

U Win Tin is one of Burma's most well-known journalists, an opposition leader and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's right hand man. Famous both inside and outside of Burma, many people campaigned for his release. He is known as Burma's longest serving political prisoner, though he says, “There are many young people who spend more than twenty years in jail and who are hardly known by the people.” 

He spent almost twenty years in one of Burma's most notorious prisons, Insein in Rangoon. For long periods of time he was kept in isolation and even in former dog cells. He kept himself sane by writing poetry and solving mathematical problems. He is now 80 years old and his health is starting to fail. Because of a lack of medical care during his incarceration, existing medical conditions worsened. He suffers badly from asthma, underwent a heart operation last August, suffers from spondylitis of his spine and has failing eyesight. But from the moment he was released he resumed his old duties for the opposition party NLD (National League for Democracy). In his own words: “I am not bedridden so I can walk. But anyhow, I work everyday and I meet people and I talk with the media. Sometimes I am tired. But I continue.”  wintin1

A brave man with a vision and a dream of a free Burma; a comparison with South Africa's anti-apartheid hero and former president Nelson Mandela comes to mind. U Win Tin's struggle is purely non-violent. He believes this is also a part of the character of the Burmese people. I asked him whether he thinks that maybe at some point, violence will be necessary to create change in Burma.

U Win Tin: I do not think it is necessary to use violence because people in Burma are really – because of their religion – mild and very docile. Their will, their desire, is not to use a violent way. Even to use a violent word is frowned upon in Burmese society. The people like to be very polite and very quiet and they do not express their will in a violent way.

I think the nonviolent way is possible, though there might be some violence, or a violent phase in our struggle. Of course the ruling power in the country is too big. There is a very strong army and they have modernized and spent a lot of money on the military. They have built up their military power over the years. One army regiment is like 1,000 people or something like that. They are very modernized, live in big houses, own plantations and inside their compounds there might even be some factories. So they are very strong, you see, among the people. Of course the soldiers themselves are suffering too. But they are suffering much less than the ordinary people. They earn more money and they have more facilities.

We are nonviolent all the time. We go out on the streets but we never use violence. I just think it is not in the Burmese people's will to use violence. It is not their style of expressing their will, political thinking and opinions. People are very nonviolent now. But maybe tomorrow, I don't know. 

He then elaborated on the violent suppression of the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

U Win Tin: The military is very strong and suddenly they will shoot, even the monks. All the people are giving homage to the monks, but they shoot them. In 2007, monks were shot for no reason. Even in the time of colonial rule there was political movement by the monks, political demonstrations and so on. But nowadays, say for instance in 2007, the monks are nonviolently and nonpolitically rallying against the government by just reciting the metta suttra, which is about loving kindness. And still they were shot. They are still unsure how many monks were killed. People believe more than 100 were killed. People are shocked by this and do not like it.

When I do get hold of him – I am referred to a different number a few times, as he has no permanent place of residence due to the junta repossessing his house during his detention and pressure placed on landlords not to rent to him – I am surprised by his eloquent and energetic sounding voice. He is witty and sharp and talks a lot. He has no fear that conversations like ours might cause him danger.

U Win Tin: You see, if you speak like this in Burma, some action or something you have done cannot bring danger for you at the present time, but it might be dangerous for you at a later time. They keep a record of your actions, and then when you are sent for trial these things will become evidence of you being guilty.

But I do not mind. I am always talking to the media: VOA, BBC, DVB, Irrawaddy. I am very outspoken and I have no restraints about my opinions. Recently, I was telling everybody that Burma at this moment is like a jail, like a prison. The whole country is a prison and people are suffering. We talk about human rights violations and about the 2,000 political prisoners in jail now, but all people are prisoners. They are prisoners in their own country, in their own towns and homes. Whenever I go to my office or to a friend's house or even to a funeral, you see, there are some two or three motorcycles following me. It is almost impossible to see a free man in Burma at this moment.

When asked about his opinion on the recently announced alms boycott and whether he thinks it is effective, his answer is long and passionate, it is obvious he admires the monks and is a devout Buddhist.

U Win Tin: This pattanikkujjana (alms boycott) is very effective. For a Buddhist, when you are under a pattanikkujjana you are no longer a Buddhist. For the government it is very effective. They are Buddhist  – nominally of course – and the pattanikkujjana has a very bad effect on them. As Buddhists, they play the religion card. They assume they are the guardians of the religion. They are the promoters of the religion. They put up big pagodas and give support to the monasteries.

But, although it is effective, in order to have a pronounced change more is needed. The monks, according to Buddhist teachings, do not act as politicians. Burmese monks are always out of politics because they are the religious people, so they are not concerned with voting. Anyhow, they have a very strong tradition of political activity and leadership, even as far back as the colonial days.

Although the government promotes religion so that people will regard them as the guardians of the religion, they try too hard. So you see, this pattannikujjana action happened and they were very shocked. In a situation like this, the monks could make a movement if they were a political party, but they are not. They are not a political party, so they have to wait and just provide people with information and tell people that this government really has no authority and that the monks are suppressed.  

Things have not changed for the better since the peaceful demonstrations by the monks were violently stopped in 2007.

U Win Tin: Every week we hear news about monks being arrested and taken from their monasteries. Even, for instance, if I want to ask a monk to give some offering at my house, his monastery will be asked not to go to my house. The government's suppression of religious people will not go unnoticed, because in the foreign press and media people are reporting these incidents. So, although there is not so much activity by the monks as a political force, they are still there. The force is going on everyday and they work everyday.

Because they have to collect their meals, they go around and talk to the people. They are in contact with the people. In that way they are more political than us, because we do not go to people's houses everyday. They have to go out and collect their meals early in the morning or in the daytime. They are in close contact with the people and can exchange ideas and opinions. Their influence on the people is very high, because they are their friends. And in those talks there might be some political matters or talk about suffering.

We talk about the United States' recent policy of dealing with the Burmese junta: engagement coupled with sanctions. How does U Win Tin feel about this new approach? According to him, a lot of the sanctions are not very effective, but he feels engagement with the military regime will not be very effective either.

U Win Tin: It has been proven that sanctions are not effective and they know that. But they will keep them as long as there is no improvement in the current situation. Engagement is not effective either, as it has already been tried by other countries such as Russia. Nowadays the US government uses this engagement and sanctions approach together. They are attacking with one gun that is not very effective and now they are using another gun that is also not very effective. Whether they have one gun or two guns it does not matter.

Although I do not think this American action of engagement and sanctions will be very effective, we are still hopeful. At least now there are two weapons and they are engaging in Burma, so people in political parties and political forces are encouraged and we are rather hoping for something.

He switches to the subject of the upcoming elections in 2010.

U Win Tin: Without political dialogue the upcoming elections will be nothing. They will be a sham. This election is built upon the framework of the 2008 constitution, which will be enacted after this election. This constitution will prolong military rule for many years. There are no peoples’ rights, no democratic rights, nothing at all. For instance, according to this constitution (article 6), the military is the leader of politics. I cannot agree with that. 

Another difficulty is that there is no political will on the part of the junta. They have no idea of the country's problems and are only thinking of their own will, which is to prolong their rule. They have no plans at all to make any contact, to make any dialogue, with political forces or ethnic nationalities. So, we use this American initiative as a tool to move and go through the election. The election is a sham without the participation of the ethnic nationalities and opposition parties. We need to have political dialogue before the election; with nationalities, with ourselves and with opposition forces. That will be the only way. 

One of the demands of the United States government and also one of the conditions for the NLD to partake in the upcoming elections is the release of all political prisoners. Amnesty International estimates there are currently more than 2,000 political prisoners languishing in Burma's prisons. Many of them were involved in the 1988 uprising and the 2007 Saffron Revolution. Nearly 200 monks and nuns are believed imprisoned. U Win Tin feels the US might have some influence on the release of these prisoners.

U Win Tin: If the US shows some positive thinking and initiative, the military will know how to react to this. One of these reactions can be the release of political prisoners. As a sign of goodwill they might release some students but they will not release all political prisoners. They will keep some as hostages. They want to show the world that they are not that bad, by releasing prisoners. When I was released in September 2008, they released many prisoners, most of whom were criminals and not political prisoners.

U Win Tin believes the junta is not interested in the political process. A person with ties to a foreign country cannot participate in the election. This was invented to prevent Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose husband was British and sons live abroad, from playing a legitimate role in politics.

U Win Tin: The government has no intention to give her a role to play in Burmese politics. She is a very good leader. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has many activities and much influence, but still she is restricted. She can do a lot and she can assert her experiences on the people. But, if she is not allowed to go outside of Rangoon or to meet the press or something, then it is almost impossible for her to play a very big role in politics.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 20 January 2010 17:42 )  
The Kachin’s last stand
Since October this year, Burma has been in a state of civil war, with fighting between Burmese military and armed ethnic rebels. The ruling junta started a crackdown on these armed groups.

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