U Win Tin: Journalist and activist who stood with Aung San Suu Kyi at the head of Burma's pro-democracy movement

  • @peterpopham

U Win Tin was one of Burma's leading journalists, a towering figure in the democracy movement and a founding member of the National League for Democracy. Handsome and charismatic, he devoted his life to the struggle to liberate his nation from military rule.

As vice-president of the journalists' union in 1988 he was one of the intellectuals who persuaded Aung San Suu Kyi to throw in her lot with the surging democracy movement. The two remained close to the end despite serious disagreements on strategy. She visited his bedside in a Rangoon hospital last week when he received dialysis treatment for kidney failure. After his death she described him as "a great man". "It's a great loss," she said, "but it's also not a loss because he can't be lost to us. His thoughts, his words, his example will stay with us."

Win Tin was born in the town of Gyo Pin Gauk north-east of Rangoon in May 1930. At the age of 13 he followed the path of most Buddhist children and was ordained as a child-monk. He appreciated the simplicity and orderliness of monastic life, and although not overtly religious as an adult, his style of living remained monastic: he never married and lived in a two-room house in Rangoon with few possessions.

"I am a single person," he said, "I have no family life. Most of my life I have lived for my work as a politician and journalist. That has consumed my life. Since the age of about 19 I have lived as a public man. By that I don't mean as a well-known person; I mean that my life belongs to society, and society is my life."

After taking a degree in English literature, modern history and political science at Rangoon University, he worked as a translator while doing shifts as night editor for Agence-France Presse. Later he won a scholarship to train as a journalist in the Netherlands, hitch-hiking around Europe during the holidays.

These were the chaotic early years of Burmese independence and Win Tin received regular accounts of events back home. Aware that many of his fellow expatriates would be starved of news, he bought a typewriter with the Burmese script and began typing up and cyclostyling four-page newsletters and posting them to every Burmese living abroad whose address he could obtain.

On returning to Burma in 1957 he was involved in setting up several newspapers and was soon identified by the authorities as a trouble-maker. In 1968 he was banished to Mandalay, where he continued to write and edit, doing his best to dodge the increasingly oppressive censorship. But as revealed in a forthcoming book by Rosalind Russell (who as "Phoebe Kennedy" was The Independent's Rangoon correspondent), he had a unique asset: his improbable connection to General Ne Win, the military strongman who had seized power in 1962.

"Ne Win had an intellectual side," Russell writes, "and sought out the company of the original, free-thinking Win Tin." Whenever Ne Win came to Mandalay he summoned Win Tin into his presence. Win Tin had no special respect for Ne Win or his policies but appreciated the utility of the relationship. "It was a great safeguard for me," he said. "Because the authorities knew of my contact with Ne Win, they didn't dare to be too harsh."

In 1988 the government sparked a major rebellion by recklessly demonetising three currency notes, pauperising much of the population at a stroke. Win Tin was involved in the months of demonstrations that followed, and with fellow journalists and intellectuals persuaded Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma's murdered national hero, who was in Rangoon caring for her mortally ill mother, to participate.

On 26 August that year she made her grand debut, addressing a crowd at Shwedagon pagoda that Win Tin estimated to be a million. "As far as I knew she had never done any public speaking," he recalled. But she spoke "very convincingly… For a normal person it is not so easy to talk to such a huge crowd, a sea of people. And she talked so wittily: we saw at once that she was a born leader – 'a star is born', something like that."

The following month Win Tin, Suu Kyi and a handful of others launched the National League for Democracy. One of his tasks was to prepare Suu Kyi's speeches for publication. "It was never necessary to edit the speeches, they were always perfect," he recalled. "One of the things I admire about her is her ability to talk to the people and cut through to what is important."

Thanks largely to Suu Kyi's barnstorming campaign tours8, the NLD grew exponentially through the early months of 1989, attaining a membership estimated at 3 million and frightening the new military regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council or SLORC, into locking up the party's entire central command. Win Tin was arrested on 4 July 1989 and brutally beaten before his court appearance. His upper teeth were knocked out and he had black and purple welts across his body.

He was sentenced to three years' jail for "spreading anti-government propaganda", but new charges were repeatedly added and in the end he spent more than 19 years inside, most of it in solitary confinement, some of it locked into a tiny enclosure called the Dog House as a special punishment. In one period he and other "politicals" succeeded in producing pamphlets on politics and current affairs from their cells, but eventually the material was discovered.

He was released on 23 September 2008, one year after the "Saffron Revolution". On learning of his discharge he refused to change out of his sky-blue prison shirt, and continued to wear only shirts of that colour for the rest of his life – in solidarity, as he said, with those still inside, and because Burma was still one big prison.

Win Tin was always on the radical side of the party. He disagreed with Suu Kyi's decision to fight a by-election in 2012, and was unimpressed by her willingness to have dealings with the military. "Some of us would like to push the military into the Bay of Bengal," he said last year. "She only wants to push them into Kandawgyi Lake" (in central Rangoon). But he remained steadfastly loyal to her. "When people like me were released," he told me in 2010, "it was like pouring water in a flower pot. But if Suu Kyi is released, it will be like the coming of the monsoon."

U Win Tin, journalist and politician: born Gyo Pin Gauk, Burma 12 March 1930; died Rangoon 21 April 2014.