Asia Times:Moral authority in Myanmar(Interview with U Win Tin)

By Charles McDermid

HUA HIN, Thailand – When pro-democracy stalwart U Win Tin was unexpectedly freed after 19 years in Yangon’s Insein Prison in September 2008, he was then Myanmar’s longest-serving political prisoner. Just hours after his release, he was still wearing his blue prison overalls and had already resumed speaking out against the military run government.

“I did not accept the terms of your amnesty,” he said at the time, referring to the ruling junta’s alleged publicity stunt of releasing 9,002 prisoners. “I will keep fighting until the emergence of democracy in this country.”

The poet and former journalist began his jail term in 1989 for activities linked to his senior role in Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, where he was one of the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s closest advisers. While in detention, he managed to have a memo smuggled out to a United Nations official about torture and other human-rights violations rampant in Myanmar’s sprawling penal system – earning him awards such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Press Freedom Prize and the World Association of Newspapers’ Golden Pen of Freedom Award.

It also earned him, according to Amnesty International, rounds of torture, food and water deprivation and extended periods of solitary confinement in an ill-kept kennel meant for military dogs. For his last two years in prison, he was denied visits from the International Red Cross. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, U Win Tin had repeatedly refused to sign a letter promising to give up his political activities as a condition of his release.

In recent months, Win Tin has worked to reorganize the NLD and rejoined its central executive committee. The octogenarian’s living situation and personal security, however, remain a challenge.

“When I was in prison I was evicted from my house – years ago. When I came out I had no place to live. I try to rent a room but there are many threats against the landlords. People don’t want me to stay for long and ask me to leave,” Win told Asia Times Online in a June 11 interview. “It’s a very confused story to understand for foreigners from a free country. Now I am 80 years old. I don’t know how long I can stand it, but I will try.”

On the night before the adjournment on Friday of Suu Kyi’s trial until June 26, Win Tin spoke to ATol’s Charles McDermid by phone from Yangon.

ATol: How has the ongoing trial of Aung San Suu Kyi affected the atmosphere on the streets of Yangon?

WT: People think it’s really simple. They know clearly that this is a made-up story. The court is going to sentence her to three to five years. We are reading a storybook and we know the ending. The people think she is innocent and this is a false case.

ATol: You have applied to the court to testify as a witness for Suu Kyi – and been denied. What were you going to say?

WT: I have no experience in law, but what I understand is that witnesses for the accused can say something about [the defendant’s] character or they can say something about the case. It is important for us to testify that she is a great leader and has committed no crime – in this case or any other brought against her.

She’s very firm on democracy and against military rule. We asked for four witnesses and the judges denied three of them, including myself. Now we have appealed to the highest court in the country; it will be tried on June 17.

ATol: What is your impression of the American – John Yettaw – who entered Suu Kyi’s compound and brought on the new charges against her?

WT: I haven’t met him so I have no special things to think about him. I do think there must be some collusion – some connection between Yettaw and the government. He came in for the first time last year in November. The government knew he came in because Suu Kyi asked her doctor to report it. Then he came again. Why did they give a visa to the man who committed a crime? For an American to come to Burma [Myanmar], you need a man to sponsor you. Who sponsored Mr Yettaw to get a visa? It would be impossible for this man to get a visa twice.

ATol: Have the arrest and trial brought the support the pro-democracy movement counted on?

WT: Yes, very much. We are rather surprised at the international reaction. We generally get support, but this time it’s very intense. For instance, some countries like the US and England and some EU countries have pressured the government to release Suu Kyi. [United States President] Barack Obama’s reaction has been very strong for us.

The ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] charter does not allow intervention – so we can’t escape that. But [Thai Prime Minister] Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Foreign Minister [Kasit Piromya] have given us very strong support that we really didn’t expect from ASEAN.

The junta’s response has been that this is an internal affair. But we refuse to accept that: this is a human-rights violation that could destabilize the entire region.

ATol: What do you make of the silence that has come from Myanmar’s closest allies – specifically China?

WT: This China problem is very big for us, but we think China has changed a lot, too. The policy of the opposition is that there must be security, stability and development [in the country]. China helps Burma in economic matters with arms and everything. What China is concerned about is the stability of the state; what we need is political stability.

ATol: Has the NLD had contact with any Chinese officials?

WT: No. No Chinese officials ever come to our receptions or ceremonies. China is the only embassy we have not had contact with, but we tried. We would like to meet with them, but I think it’s been nearly 20 years – since 1990 – that we haven’t had any contact.

ATol: If the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi is extended, as expected, will the NLD take part in the scheduled 2010 election?

WT: No, on a matter of principle. It’s rather complicated: the problem now is not the election, it’s about the constitution … [I]n the constitution it requires that 25% of the parliament be active military that is appointed by the government. In the constitution it says the army must get a leading role in national politics – that’s not a democracy at all.

We don’t mind entering elections if they are democratic. Our greatest problem is that we cannot go into elections with this version of the constitution. Nowadays, all the opposition parties are asking for a review of the constitution and they refuse. We [the NLD] won in a landslide in 1990, so now they’ve drawn up a constitution to stop the transfer of power.

It is impossible for us [to take part in the elections]. And not just us, but for some ethnic groups as well. Things might change, but I don’t think so. As of now, we are not satisfied and it’s not much good to talk about the elections. People in the US are not well informed about the constitution: instead of asking us ‘Will you be in the election on not?’ you should be asking ‘Can you accept the constitution?’

ATol: Are you in favor of talking to the generals, reaching some kind of compromise?

WT: We are for dialogue. We have been asking for it since October 1988. We sent them a letter asking to solve our problems at the table. We have kept that political policy up even now. We are ready to meet anybody – not just the highest level but the middle level … In the past they have used this to try and separate us from Suu Kyi. We won’t accept that kind of dialogue. The dialogue must come through her or be approved by her; they should do it all through her. If they do that we are ready and will be glad to welcome contact. But we must have the consent of Suu Kyi.

ATol: Is the NLD overly reliant on Aung San Suu Kyi’s personality and symbolism?

WT: It is a difficult question to answer, but in the organization right now it is true. We are too dependent on her; she is so popular and so intelligent and resolute. She has very great support not only in Burma but also in the international community. She is so popular, we rely too much on her – that is right. But I want to say the spirit of Suu Kyi is among the people.

We rely on her for everything, we don’t deny it, but her spirit is there. We don’t mind even if she is not among us – even if she dies – it doesn’t matter; her spirit is among us. To rely on her is not the right thing to assess. We can carry on the struggle with young people and new generations because they have the spirit. We can say we depend on her too much, at the same time we can say we have her spirit among the young.

ATol: If Suu Kyi is kept under arrest, will there be violence?

WT: If there is it will be the fault of the junta. They don’t care, they will do whatever they like. The people don’t want violence; we have seen enough violence for more than half a century. There was violence in 1988 [the student uprising] and in the Saffron Revolution led by monks [2007] and the [government] has killed maybe thousands of people. There may be demonstrations, but there will be no violence on the part of the people.

ATol: Myanmar has a reported 2,100 political prisoners. What would be your advice to someone currently in prison?

WT: Don’t be dispirited, don’t be disillusioned – because the victory is ours. We will win one day, if not now – someday. We don’t want them to think they are forgotten. I don’t like the mentality that these prisoners are forgotten – everybody is supporting them and everyone is speaking about them. I know they are in a terrible place, so what I want to tell them is please don’t be disillusioned and please don’t think of yourself as forgotten.

ATol: In your opinion, will Suu Kyi ever be allowed to go free?

WT: For the junta it is difficult to allow her to be free. She will be sentenced and then after the elections [in 2010] she can’t stay in jail longer than one or two years. If they can hold the elections successfully in the face of public rejection – she will be free within one or two years. She will be sentenced to five years, but she won’t have to stay that long.

Charles McDermid is an Asia Times Online correspondent based in Thailand.

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