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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2959

Journalist U Win Tin Spends 18 years in Burmese Prison

By Zin Linn*

Today, June 4, marks the 18th year in prison for writer-journalist U Win Tin. He was a member of the central executive committee of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and a key adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi who has been leading peaceful protest against the military regime. He was picked up on this day in 1989, during a nation-wide crackdown by the military authorities on the opposition.

Initially, the sentence was for three years with hard labour. The charge: as a dissident 'he had used his influence upon people to urge them to mount a civil disobedience campaign against martial law. His jail term was subsequently extended to 21 years; the regime promised his release first in 2004 and later on in 2005 but these promises was never kept like all other promises the Junta has been making only to break. Since the beginning of 2006, U Win Tin is barred from receiving visits from the International Red Cross even.

U Win Tin, former editor-in-chief of the Hanthawadi Daily, spent his 77th birthday in solitary confinement on 12th of March. He is the only journalist- prisoner of conscience under solitary confinement for over 18 years. He also holds the record as the longest serving journalist detainees in the world. On one occasion, the prison authorities had assured the Red Cross that U Win would be released early and that his sentence would not be extended. The promise was a mirage.

The Junta has been pressurising him to give up political activity if he wants to breathe a free man. But U Win has turned down the demand not once but several times and refused to sign a letter on the dotted line. In July 2006, his name figured among 118 political prisoners listed for early release from Insein prison. But he was left out in the end for reasons that remain a mystery.

He was singled out of that group for the honour of being thrown back into solitary confinement. A jail officer reportedly told him in July 2006 that he could not hope for release as he did not do hard labour. What logic? Only a heartless junta can think sentencing an old person to hard labour.

On his 77th birthday, Reporters without Borders and the Burma Media Association lamented: "The inhumanity of this military junta, which has imprisoned a sick, 77-year-old man for nearly 18 years, needs no further proof. By refusing U Win Tin the right to early release, the regime breaks its own laws and promises. We call for him to be freed at once." The Committee to Protect Journalists also called on the military authorities to immediately release U Win Tin.

The seasoned journalist is not keeping good health. He has had at least two heart attacks. He suffers from hypertension, a degenerative spine condition, inflamed prostate and urinary infirmity. A prison physician provides him twice-monthly checkups. But he largely depends on the support of his friend's family, who regularly bring him food, medicine and clothes.
When Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the UN Special Envoy for Human Rights in Myanmar, visited U Win Tin on his birthday in 2005, he was moved as much by the deplorable conditions he was kept in and by the fact that his failing health has been made worse by poor medical care and the effects of improper surgery. Prof. Pinheiro said in his report, "I was very moved when U Win Tin narrated how he has no access to paper or a pen".

This denial of 'instruments of his craft' has not served to silence the journalist and poet in U Win. To fight his forced silence, he fabricated his own ink out of powder extracted from the bricks of his cell, and fashioned a pen from a piece of bamboo mat. Although Prof. Pinheiro's mission is to secure freedom for all political prisoners, it is important for him to take up individual cases, especially of U Win and other political prisoners who are old or ill, more so as the PEN, Canada points out the detention of the journalist-author – HR campaigner is a violation of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Presently in Burma, there is no freedom of association, no freedom of expression, no freedom of the press and no freedom of profession under Burmese military regime which styles itself as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Approximately 1200 prisoners of conscience and political prisoners are in custody; they include Members of Parliaments, students, doctors, teachers, journalists, writers, lawyers, actors and housewives. They are all serving long sentences in notorious prisons across Burma.

Democracy and national reconciliation will remain a mirage as long as the junta continues to incarcerate Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and political activists for decades. If the SPDC truly wants to show its commitment to democratic process, it should release all political prisoners prior to resuming the so called national convention on 18 July 2007 at Nyaung-hnapin camp in Hmawbi Township.

People of Burma are deeply disturbed that ASEAN member states as well as neighbouring China and India are making no effort to promote stability in their country. They also feel sad that these powerful neighbours are ignoring the deteriorating rule of law and respect for all internationally recognized human rights and basic freedoms inside Burma.

The United Nations has been calling for political reforms including release of political prisoners since 1991. The world body has adopted several resolutions but these concerns have not gone beyond lip service. Without action, resolutions are of no avail. Global accords prohibiting torture and upholding human rights can not help prisoners of conscience ill-treated by the dictatorial regime. It is time to pay heed to the cries of agony.

* Zin Linn - A former political prisoner is a writer –journalist in exile. He is an executive member of the Burma Media Association which is affiliated with Reporters Sans Frontiers based in Paris.

- Asian Tribune -

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