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Win Tin

Due for release in 2009

Occupation : Former editor of the daily paper Hanthawathi, vice-president of the Burmese Writers’ Association and member of the executive committee of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD).

Date of arrest : 4 July 1989.

Sentence : 20 years in prison. He was sentenced successively to three years (on 3 October 1989), 10 years (June 1992) and seven years (28 March 1996).

Reason for arrest : Win Tin was first sentenced for "harbouring a delinquent sought by police," under article 216 of the penal ode. He had taken in a young woman who had had an abortion, which is illegal in Burma. His second conviction was by a special court for "making seditious statements, organising subversive movements and writing pamphlets calling for treason against the state," under section 5(j) of the 1950 emergency law. The third conviction was for "secretly publishing anti-government propaganda to provoke prison riots".

He was arrested a few days before NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi because of his involvement with the party. The government accused him of pushing the NLD to choose civil disobedience to resist the martial law decreed by the SLORC (the State Law and Order Restoration Council, as the country’s military rulers then called themselves). After the August 1988 uprising, he published many articles, often anonymous, about the political situation, frequently mentioning the non-violence preached by Mahatma Gandhi.

Place of detention : Since 1996, he has been in cell 10, in a special wing of Rangoon’s Insein prison. His very poor health forces the prison authorities to move him regularly to the prison hospital. Until 1995, Win Tin was held in cell 2 of the prison’s group 3. From November 1995 to April 1996, he was held in a cage at the prison’s kennels.

Conditions of detention : Win Tin’s national and international celebrity have for several years earned him better conditions of detention than most political prisoners. But his health has seriously declined during 13 years in jail. He has had two heart attacks and in 1995 an operation for a slipped disc; during which a testicle had to be removed. He also has spondylitis (inflammation of the spine) and has to wear a brace. Because of poor prison conditions, he has lost most of his teeth and for several months the prison authorities refused to give him dentures. One former political prisoner reported that he steadily and peacefully resists the authorities’ orders and often discusses politics with his cellmates.

In 1990, he was beaten up by prison guards because he took part in a hunger strike to protest against the crackdown on the democratic movement.

In February 1994, US Congressman Bill Richardson went to Burma to meet Aung San Suu Kyi. He was allowed to visit Insein prison for two hours, where he met four political prisoners, including Win Tin, who was in solitary confinement at the time. Richardson said Win Tin was not allowed to receive mail or read books. After the meeting, during which Win Tin talked at length about the situation in Burma, the military authorities refused for the next five years to allow political prisoners to meet such foreign visitors. From November 1995 to April 1996, Win Tin and four other NLD prisoners in Insein prison were ill-treated. They were interrogated about a document secretly sent from the prison to Yozo Yokota, the then UN special rapporteur for human rights in Burma. Win Tin helped write this document, which detailed ill-treatment and conditions of detention. He was also accused of publishing a small clandestine magazine in prison. The five were convicted by a military court and sent to "military doghouses," called Taik Peik, little cells normally used as kennels. For several months, they had to sleep on a concrete floor, without a mattress or blanket. Family visits were banned, they were only permitted to leave their cells for 10 minutes each day and were not allowed any food or medicine brought by their families.

Despite all this, Win Tin maintained his firm convictions. From the kennel, he made a speech to mark Burma’s national day. The military authorities have several times tried to persuade him to drop his political activism. A cellmate told how, in 1991, the regime took him to an exhibition in Rangoon organised by the government to prove foreign elements were involved in the 1988 uprising. The exhibition denounced the work of "terrorist groups" and said "only the army could save the Nation." After the visit, the soldiers asked him to write an account of what he had seen. He wrote 25 pages saying the army should get out of politics and respect the results of the 1990 elections.

In early October 1997, he was transferred to Rangoon general hospital, as he was very weak. His family thought he might die. He left hospital a few weeks later but still suffers from heart problems, back pain and dental problems.

At the end of 2001, he was taken to the general hospital again for a slipped disc operation. In February 2002, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the UN special rapporteur for Burma, talked with him at his bedside. Pinheiro said afterwards he was in good spirits, but worried about his colleagues in prison. He told Pinheiro he wanted to see a "spark of hope" for all Burmese who, like himself, had their basic rights violated with impunity. He said Pinheiro visit was a "return to the light."

Win Tin was returned to his special cell at Insein prison at the end of May 2002. The military reportedly suspected a secret correspondence between him and Aung San Suu Kyi. His health worsened in early July, with haemorrhoid pains, an old urinary infection and prostate trouble. He was fairly weak when a doctor saw him in the second week of July. He asked the doctor to treat him with the cheapest medicine so as not to be a burden on a friend who had been visiting him for 10 years and who had little money to buy him medicine. A sympathetic prison guard present at the examination told the friend that Win Tim was "a man of steel who never shows any sign of depression." However, the guard said, "this time, I’m very worried about his health." After many protests, Win Tin was transferred to the prisoners’ wing of the general hospital on 26 July.

On 11 August, four prisoners of conscience - Win Tin, Aye Thar Aung, Htwe Myint and Dr Than Nyein - began a "hospital strike," demanding to be taken back to prison if they were not going to be treated like normal hospital patients. They said they had been brought to the hospital and then not given the treatment and operations they needed. Aye Thar Aung, who was released on 16 August, told the radio station Democratic Voice of Burma about Win Tin’s situation. He said they had staged the "hospital strike" because conditions there were "worse than in prison." He said: "The doors of our little rooms were closed, there was no ventilation and not enough light." When they protested, the guards simply said that their complaints had been passed on to their superiors. He said members of the military intelligence services took photos of them every day, during their medical examinations, their meals or while they were sleeping. The military at first said they were taking the photos to put them on the Internet, then said they needed them for their records. The detainees suspected the photos were for propaganda purposes.

On 6 September, Win Tin was returned to his prison cell after a month and a half at the hospital. A doctor there told radio station DVB that reasons other than an improvement in his health were probably behind the transfer.

On 6th November 2002, Win Tin is being held in cell 5 in a special "important prisoners" only block at Insein prison. On 28th October he was visited by Mr. Pinheiro, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Burma. They spoke for nearly an hour. Win Tin told him that he wanted to see "all prisoners treated with the same attention" as himself, that he was "in good health" and that he "regretted the fact that he was only able to read government newspapers".

One of Win Tin’s close friends, a writer, was also able to visit him at the end of October. Their discussions, held in the presence of two members of the secret services (MIS) dealt mainly with his health and various international news stories. Win Tin was forbidden from making comments on the national political situation. His friend confirmed that the journalist was in fairly good health, but that he was in pain whenever the temperature dropped. He said that the pains were the result of surgery carried out in 1995 in poor conditions. His friend’s next visit is expected to take place on 16th November.

Because of heart problems, Win Tin was taken to the Insein district hospital in Rangoon on 22 November for tests. The electrocardiogram results and a localised infection led the doctor to ask for his transfer the next day to Rangoon General Hospital, where he was put in one of the 15 sq.metre basement rooms specially set up for political prisoners. A doctor examines him each day and he is getting the medicine he needs. Two other political prisoners, Htwe Myint and Thein Nyein, members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, are also being looked after in this section of the hospital.

A delegation from Amnesty International, making its first ever fact-finding mission to Burma at the military junta’s invitation, on 5 February visited Win Tin in his hospital room, where they were able to talk freely for more than an hour. On its return to Europe, the delegation reported that Win Tin’s morale was excellent and that his state of health was reasonable. He is nonetheless suffering from urinary problems.

The doctor who monitors Win Tin reported in mid-March that he had swollen glands and new urinary pains. At the same time, small ganglions have appeared on his abdomen around a scar from on old operation on his intestines. However, his family said there was no sign of any cancer. In mid-March, he had new urinary pains and his doctor found he had swollen glands. Small ganglions also appeared on his chest near a scar from an old stomach operation. But his family said it was not cancer.

In May, he was returned to his cell at Insein prison. His health was now stable. In July, he was allowed to read pro-government newspapers but no privately-published books or magazines. His family can now visit him about once a fortnight.

Win Tin’s name appeared on a 19 November 2004 list of prisoners due to be released. The previous day Burma’s military junta had announced the release of nearly 4,000 prisoners following "irregularities" committed by the intelligence body run by the sacked former Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt. Several sources announced that Win Tin had actually been freed, but the journalist had not left Insein Prison in Rangoon.

Over the next few days, Win Tin’s family confirmed to Reporters Without Borders that neither the prison or military authorities had ever informed them of his imminent release. The journalist is still held in his special cell at Insein jail.

The junta’s deputy foreign minister Kyaw Thu told news agency Reuters on 25 November that the journalist and opposition figure Win Tin was definitely on the list of some 4,000 prisoners in the process of being released. "We would not have decreed it if we did not really intend to do it (...) If we do not keep our word, we will have more pressure, not only from our side, but also from the West," the minister told Reuters.

But on 29 November, the authorities said that the release of prisoners had now been "completed".

Circumstances of arrest : He was arrested at his home in Rangoon. Police confiscated his books, some of which were displayed at a press conference organised by military authorities. They were supposed to prove he had "communist sympathies."

Trial : At his first trial, the prosecutor tried to show that Win Tin had taken in a "delinquent," a young woman who had had an abortion.

The second trial was held in secret at Insein prison, in conditions that did not meet international standards for a fair trial. In the book "The Truth," published by the defence ministry’s office of strategic studies, SLORC propagandists say Win Tin was sentenced to an additional 10 years in prison because new evidence had been found, especially about his "communist convictions."

After the third trial, also held at Insein prison, where the defendant had no right to a lawyer, several international organisations showed that he had and his co-defendants had been convicted for exercising their right to communicate with the outside world, guaranteed by articles 37 and 39 of the Minimal Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, adopted by the United Nations. Punishing people who provide information to representatives of UN human rights organisations also contravenes resolution 1994/70 of the UN Human Rights Commission. During his closing speech, the military judge accused Win Tin and his co-defendants of publishing a clandestine magazine, and possessing pens, radios and foreign magazines. The charges against him said "it was very clear Win Tin wrote and published magazines, newsletters and articles against the government (...) The defendants committed a crime while serving prison sentences (...) There is no reason to show any leniency."

Family situation : Unmarried. His father, U Pu, died while he was in prison.

Date and place of birth : 12 March 1930.

Biography : Win Tin has a BA in English literature, modern history and political science.

From 1950 to 1954, he was on the staff of Sarpay Beikman, then Jumbarton (1954-57) and then the daily Kyemon (1957-69). He became well known as a political commentator and regularly criticised the militarisation of the country and the corruption of its rulers. He then became editor of the daily Hanthawathi until it was banned in 1978. He was accused of attending a meeting of intellectuals at which a statement was approved criticising "the Burmese path to socialism" imposed by General Ne Win.

Win Tin was also an art critic, under the pen-name Baw Thit. He specialised in traditional Burmese art and also wrote about European painters, especially Gauguin, who he compared to the Burmese painter U Khin Maung, from Mandalay.

He was vice-president of the new Burmese Writers’ Association (Sarpay Thamagga) and an editorial board member of the Burmese Encyclopedia when the 1988 riots broke out. He was a founder member of the NLD and became its secretary-general. He was one of the most influential advisers of Aung San Suu Kyi and had a great deal of influence in the future 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s involvement in politics.

Since his arrest, the authorities have several times offered to free him in exchange for a letter of resignation from the NLD. He has always refused. Former political prisoners say Win Tin is the most respected of all prisoners. Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD activists have nicknamed him Saya (the Wise Man). "The military will never release Win Tin while Aung San Suu Kyi is free, because they fear him too much," says journalist Moe Aye, who spent more than two months with Win Tin at Insein prison hospital. "The two of them together have incredible strength."

In an article in the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Daily News, Aung San Suu Kyi said of Win Tin: "It is natural that those who believed in intellectual freedom and justice were the first to be involved in the 1988 democratic movement. Since the very beginning, Win Tin has played an active role in the Writers’ Union that appeared in the earliest days of the movement. His unquestionable skill and steadfast convictions have made him a major target of all those who oppose democracy." Other people say Win Tin sees himself as a democrat rather than a member of a party. He is the last NLD leader arrested in 1989 to be still in jail.

Reporters Without Borders action :
-  September 2000: A petition signed by more than 600 people is delivered to the Burmese embassy in Paris calling for his release.
-  July 2001: Publication of a report on the situation of the 18 journalists jailed in Burma. Reporters Without Borders asks the European Union and the United States not to lift sanctions imposed on the Burmese regime unless the 18 are freed and censorship abolished. - August 2001: A petition signed by more than 600 people is delivered to the Burmese embassy in Paris calling for his release because of his deteriorating health.
-  12 March 2002: A petition signed by more than 2,500 people is delivered to the Burmese embassy in Paris to mark his 72nd birthday. The same month, Reporters Without Borders mentions his plight in testimony to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
-  4 July 2002: Reporters Without Borders and the monthly magazine Maires de France send the Burmese ambassador in France a petition signed by 55 mayors of French towns calling for his immediate release.
-  July 2002: Letters are sent to the Japanese foreign minister and the UN special rapporteur for Burma as they visit the country, asking them to raise Win Tin’s case with the government.
-  On 13 November 2002, on the eve of Reporters’ Without Borders "Sponsorship Day," sponsoring journalists and members of the organisation demonstrated in front of the Burmese embassy in Paris to call for his release. They symbolically renamed the street after the journalist and daubed the entrance of the embassy with the words "When you enter here, you enter a country where news is censored." The sponsoring journalists were given a replica of Aung Pwint’s press card to keep alongside their own to remind them that he is not as fortunate as they are.


-  Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association (BMA) on 30 November 2004 repeated their call to the European Union to maintain sanctions following the announced but non effective release of Win Tin and 12 other journalists.
-  On 3 January 2005, Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association (BMA) urged the head of government, General Soe Win, to keep his promises by releasing all prisoners, particularly Win Tin, arrested and unfairly sentenced by the former Military Intelligence Service (MIS).

Action by other organisations :
-  Amnesty International: prisoner of conscience.
-  UNESCO: World Press Freedom Prize/Guillermo Cano 2001.
-  World Association of Newspapers (WAN): Gold Pen 2000, with the journalist San San Nweh.
-  Former Czech President Vaclav Havel and 14 winners of the Nobel Prize in literature called for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Win Tin and Aung Myint on 15 April. "We are deeply concerned by the open, unrestricted and still growing crackdown on a non-violent movement and by the fact that our fellow writers have been stripped of their freedom of expression and in many cases of their physical freedom as well," they said in a letter handed in to six Burmese embassies in different parts of the world.