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Veteran Journalist U Win Tin- World’s longest serving prisoner of conscience

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Director-General renews request for release of U Win Tin, imprisoned for the last 18 years
U Win Tin, The winner of the 2001 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize

By – Zin Linn

U Win Tin is the world’s longest serving “prisoner of conscience” and a “veteran journalist of Burma”.

Two press freedom associations, Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association issued a statement calling for the release of the veteran journalist, who has spent 19 years in solitary confinement under the inhumane detention camp of Burmese junta. His health has deteriorated in the past few days.

“It will be exactly 19 years on 4 July since Burma’s military arrested Win Tin,” the groups’ statement highlighted. “The government, which has a responsibility to protect the life of its citizens, should now release him,” the group statement urged.

The famous imprisoned journalist has constantly refused to sign a confession promising to abandon his political career as a condition for his release. The 79-year-old journalist admitted to the hospital for second surgical treatment to hernia in January 2008. The first treatment to his hernia was in March 1995.

Former editor-in-chief of The Hantharwaddy Daily of Mandalay was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, the World Association of Newspapers’ Golden Pen of Freedom Award and award from the 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 open prison for prisoners of conscience” including political prisoners and journalists. Burma’s distinguished prisoner of conscience, U Win Tin is one of Burma’s most popular journalists and executive member of the National League for Democracy (NLD). He has spent 19 years or one fourth of his life time 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 tiny box-cell designed for political prisoners.

U Win Tin has been imprisoned since 4th July 1989 in a special cell at the infamous Insein Prison in Rangoon. The former editor-in-chief of Hantharwaddy Daily , was the 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 human rights abuses report in prison to Mr. Yozo Yokota, the then United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma..

U Win Tin was also imprisoned because of his senior position as key advisor of 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 the 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, the military intelligence personnel regularly visited U Win Tin in order to examine his political stand. 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 turned down their offers.

U Win Tin narrated to this the writer, who was in the same cell-block at that time in notorious Insein Prison, about an incident with the authorities. “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 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.

He recounted that there was a big poster placed at the main entrance of the exhibition centre, 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 defend the nation.

The show also described the junta’s discrimination against the role of the democratic institutions and societies. “The final conclusion was that no one except the generals can control the unity of the nation including the country’s sovereignty,” said U Win Tin.

After witnessing the show, the authorities asked U Win Tin what he thought about the exhibition and asked his opinion and attitude toward the stratocracy. 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 commentary. I made my explanation 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 that “Their logic tells us that they are more important than the people and they used to say they are the savior of the country that’s why they grab the sovereign power. That means they neglect the people’s desire.”

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 as guardian of the nation but no obligation to involve in the administrative affairs.

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 truthfully 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 accustomed 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 narrated to me plainly.

The junta was very furious with his criticism and accused him of advising Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to launch civil disobedient campaign in 1989. Then, they made another lawsuit against him and increased additional 11 more year’s jail-term.

They confined him 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 pure water. The worst thing was throwing the old writer into solitary confinement in such a cage for two decades.

In 1994, US Congressman Bill Richardson met U Win Tin in Insein Prison. Since that time, he has continuously suffered from various health problems such as spondylitis, hernia, heart disease, failing eyesight, arthritis and hemorrhoids. It surprised everyone of how tough this gallant journalist coped up with so many health problems.

For the junta, U Win Tin is really a man of steel. Although they wish to defeat him, they could never do it.

U Win Tin’s case is a good example for human rights violations under inhumane regime. Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) says: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

But, 79-year-old-man has been suffering a variety of inhumane tortures and languishing unjust punishments for 19 years, now entering into two decades. The United Nations must take responsibility to flex its muscles on issue of breaking the principle of UDHR by such unmanageable regime in Burma.

Zin Linn is a freelance Burmese journalist in exile. He spent nine years in a Burmese prison. He works as an information director at the NCGUB East Office. He is vice-president of the Burma Media Association (BMA), which is affiliated with the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF).

– Asian Tribune –

Written by Lwin Aung Soe

July 4, 2008 at 2:50 am

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