YANGON (AFP): Win Tin, one of the founders of Myanmar’s pro-democracy opposition and its longest-serving political prisoner, died Monday aged 84 after striving for decades to bring freedom to a nation under military dictatorship.
The former journalist and veteran campaigner, whose almost two decades in jail failed to dull his commitment to the democratic cause, had suffered worsening ill health in recent weeks.
He died in hospital in Yangon early Monday, National League for Democracy (NLD) party spokesman Nyan Win told AFP. A funeral service will be held on Wednesday.
Win Tin, a towering figure within the democracy movement, formed the NLD with Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988 in the wake of a student-led pro-democracy uprising. He was imprisoned the following year for his political activities.
He reiterated his support for party leader Suu Kyi in the days before he died, according to his long-time assistant Yar Zar. “It is like the world has been lost. But we have many things to do. We will continue as he asked and will follow his way to democracy,” he said.
Myanmar began its emergence from nearly half a century of military rule in 2011, under a quasi-civilian government that has won international praise for reforms including the release of hundreds of political prisoners.
Suu Kyi, who was freed from years of house arrest in 2010, has also been welcomed into parliament at the helm of her party and has indicated her wish to become president after 2015 elections. But the army retains a tight grip on the fledgling parliament, casting doubt over her prospects of the top job. Campaigners stress there is still a long way to go before the country can enjoy full democracy.
Win Tin, bespectacled and with a shock of white hair, possessed an urbane manner that belied his steely nature.
He was unwavering in his loyalty to Suu Kyi, but was not afraid to voice disagreement with the Nobel laureate - a rare attribute in a party where many are awed by “the Lady”. “The only dissent comes from me,” he told AFP in an interview last June.
Win Tin’s death was met with profound sadness within the democracy movement. Dozens of mourners gathered for a memorial service at a Yangon church on Monday wearing black ribbons.
Suu Kyi herself penned a short note in homage to her longtime ally, praising him as the “pride of the country, pride of humanity”, according to a release by the NLD.
US ambassador Derek Mitchell said Win Tin was an “inspiration to all those everywhere who are dedicated to seeking and speaking the truth in the face of injustice”.
Win Tin was freed by the former military junta from Yangon’s notorious Insein prison as part of an amnesty in September 2008.
During his incarceration he had been interrogated for up to five days at a time, deprived of sleep, hooded and beaten.
From 1996 he was also kept in solitary confinement and allowed only fleeting 15-minute visits from family every two weeks. He walked out of jail still wearing his blue prison uniform because he did not believe he would really be freed.
Last year, he tangled with authorities who demanded the return of the blue shirt and sarong-like longyi he had worn in prison. He refused to repay the cost of the clothing - around $2.
Win Tin told AFP he continued to wear a blue shirt in solidarity with dissidents still in jail and to show the world that his country was not yet truly free. “I feel like I’m still in prison,” he said.
Myanmar’s junta once held about 2,000 dissidents. The government of President Thein Sein, a former general-turned-reformer, claimed it had freed them all by the end of last year. But rights groups say activists continue to be locked up.
Win Tin began his career as a journalist at the Agence France-Presse bureau in Yangon in the early 1950s soon after Myanmar’s independence from British colonial rule.
After three years with AFP he moved to the Netherlands, where he spent another three years.
In 1962 General Ne Win seized power in a coup, plunging the country into tyranny.
“The reason I became a politician is because of military governments. They put pressure on us. They seized the newspapers and publishing houses. As I have many contacts in politics, I reached into politics,” Win Tin told AFP last year.