Burma’s Longest Serving Prisoner of Conscience Must Be Free
BY – Zin Linn
Do you remember the name of Burma’s longest serving prisoner of conscience and prominent journalist?
That famous imprisoned journalist is U Win Tin who has constantly refused to sign a confession promising to abandon his political career as a condition of his release. The 78-year-old journalist U Win Tin admitted to the hospital for second surgical treatment to a hernia in January, according to his close friends.
The journalist was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, the World Association of Newspapers' Golden Pen of Freedom Award and Reporters Without Border/Foundation de France Prize for his efforts to defend and promote freedom of expression.
Burma has been called “the world's largest prison for prisoners of conscience” and many political prisoners and journalists continue languishing in jail. Burma’s longest serving prisoner of conscience, U Win Tin, turns 78 on 12 March 2008, one of the country's most established journalists as well as an executive member of the National League for Democracy (NLD). He has spent almost 19 years of his life in prison. He has spent one fourth of his life in prison. U Win Tin suffers from a serious heart condition and is being treated at the Rangoon general hospital where he is confined to a diminutive cubicle cell designed for political prisoners.
Burma’s most celebrated journalist, U Win Tin has been imprisoned since 4th July 1989 in a special cell of the infamous Insein Prison in Rangoon. U Win Tin is the former editor-in-chief of the Hanthawadi Daily, in Mandalay and vice-president of the Burmese Writers and Journalists Association. He was convicted and sentenced to three consecutive prison-terms to a total of 21 years in prison. One of the charges against him stems from his 1995 report on the conditions of prisoners and the human rights abuses inside prisons to Mr. Yozo Yokota, the then United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Situation of Human Rights in Burma..
U Win Tin was also imprisoned because of his senior position as key consultant to Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD). He was thrown into jail for additional years because of attempting to inform the United Nations about human rights violations in prisons under the military rule. Military rulers also accused him of writing political commentaries and poems to be circulated among political prisoners in Insein Prison, where possession of writing materials was forbidden.
The journalist told a friend who was allowed to visit him in 2007: "Two prison officers asked me at a special meeting last week whether I would resume political activities if I were released. I told them that I will definitely do so since it is my duty as a citizen to strive for democracy."
In 1996, in the notorious Insein Prison, U Win Tin occasionally narrated to this author of his experiences with the military intelligence personnel. The military agents came to see U Win Tin from time to time. They took him to their office in the prison and questioned him on various topics. They frequently tried to persuade him to join the junta. But U Win Tin always cast off their offers.
U Win Tin told me about an incident with the military intelligence staff. “It happened in 1991,” he said. “They took me out of my cell to an exhibition - The Real Story under the Big Waves and Strong Winds - held at Envoy Hall on U Wizara Road in Rangoon. The aim of the exhibition was to deplore the 1988 uprising as a riot created by destructive elements and terrorists,” said U Win Tin.
One day, he told me that there was a big character poster at the doorway of the exhibition saying, “Only when the Tatmadaw [military] is strong, will the nation be strong.” There were many galleries in the show. Each gallery highlighted the role of the army and emphasized that it was the sole force that could safeguard the country.
The show also described the junta's discrimination against the role of the democratic institutions and societies. "Sovereign power is only deserved by the generals. That's the final conclusion," said U Win Tin.
After witnessing the show, the junta's agents asked U Win Tin what he considered about the exhibition and inquired of his opinion and attitude toward the junta. They gave him some paper and a pen and told him to write down his opinion about the show. "I wrote down my criticism. I used 25 sheets of paper. It was a blunt comment. I made my commentary in a sense of sincerity and openness. But it irritated them severely," he told me later.
First of all, he criticized the army’s motto, “Only when the army is strong will the country be strong.” “It's the logic of the generals to consolidate militarism in Burma,” he explained to me later. ‘Their logic tells us that they are more important than the people and they expose themselves as power mongers. That means they neglect the people caught in the poverty trap.” Thus he wrote: “The slogan tells us that Burma is going against a policy of peace and prosperity.” He went on to explain his understanding of the role of the army.
He said, “The real thing is that the military comes out of the womb of the people. Thus, the slogan must be like this: ‘The people are the only parents of the military.’ Anyone who does not care about his own parents is a rogue,” he pointed out to the generals.
He also emphasized that if the generals really loved peace and wanted prosperity for the nation, they needed to sincerely reflect on their limitations. The generals might want what’s best for the country, but they did not know how to handle the entire state of affairs. They are used to mismanagement. “Eventually, I came straight to the point: The army must go back to the barracks. That will make everything better in Burma,” he told me plainly.
The junta was very disgruntled with his criticism and accused him of advising Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to defy the junta. Then, they made another lawsuit against him. The junta increased U Win Tin’s sentence by 10 more years. They put him alone in his cell. The cell was 8.5 x 11.5 feet. There was only a bamboo mat on the concrete floor. Sleeping, eating, walking and cleaning the bowels were done in the very same place. He could not see the sun, the moon or the stars. He was intentionally barred from breathing fresh air, tasting nourishing food and drinking a drop of fresh water. The worst thing was throwing the old writer into solitary confinement in such a cage for two decades. That might cause a person to have a nervous breakdown. There are many political prisoners who suffer from mental illness.
He has been in a poor condition of health, exacerbated due to meager management in jail, which has included torture, inadequate access to medical treatment, being held in a cell without bedding, and being deprived of nourishing food and clean water for long periods of time.
In 1994, US Congressman Bill Richardson met U Win Tin in Insein jail. Since that time he has continuously suffered from various health problems such as spondylitis, hernia, heart disease, failing eyesight, and urethritis, as well as piles. Most political prisoners were surprised how that gallant journalist was so tough even with so many health troubles. For the junta, U Win Tin is really a man of steel. Although they wish to defeat his sturdy spirit, they could never do it.
Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights marks its 60th Anniversary, people of Burma have been still suffering various human rights violations under the cruel military regime for almost five decades. U Win Tin’s case is a good example for one of the most inhumane human rights violations under undemocratic regime.
The UDHR’s article 1 says: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” But, U Win Tin cannot even enjoy its first item.
The UDHR’s article 5 says: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” But, U Win Tin has been suffering a variety of tortures and languishing 3 unjust punishments for almost 19 years.
The UDHR’s article 7 and 9 say respectively: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” (A.7)
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” (A.9) However, the Burmese junta’s arbitrary court sentenced unfair imprisonments toward U Win Tin in the absence of public including his lawyer.
The UDHR’s article 19 says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” But, several journalists including U Win Tin in the military run country are taken into custody for their dissident opinions.
According to Freedom House’s 2008 report, Burma has no freedom at all for political rights and civil liberties together with other 42 countries in the world.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International PEN, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters without Borders (Reporters sans Frontieres) and Burma Media Association (BMA) has repeatedly urged the junta or State Peace and Democracy Council (SPDC) to immediately and unconditionally release U Win Tin.
To materialize the essence of UDHR, the international civil societies and rights groups should help finding ways to release the Burma’s longest serving prisoner of conscience as a test case. As for now, U Win Tin has to celebrate his 78th Birthday lonesome behind bars in the absence of his comrades, fellow-journalists, friends and people who admired the saintly journalist.
- Asian Tribune -