Burma mourns death of ally of Aung San Suu Kyi and veteran democracy activist U Win Tin

The 85-year-old poet and former newspaper editor died in Rangoon, having been hospitalised with respiratory problems since last month, officials confirmed

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The Independent Online

Burma was today in mourning after the death of veteran democracy activist U Win Tin, a close ally of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and who spent more than 19 years in jail.

The 85-year-old poet and former newspaper editor died in Rangoon, having been hospitalised with respiratory problems since last month, officials confirmed.

Win Tin was jailed in 1989 because of his association with Ms Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD). He was to spend almost two decades behind bars, most of it in solitary confinement. He was repeatedly beaten and tortured and at times kept in kennels meant for dogs.

Yet after he was released, for all the risk to him, he continued his activism and never forgot about those political prisoners still in jail. While many established members of the NLD chose to dress in pressed white clothes, Win Tin always wore a plain blue shirt to remind him of the uniform he had been forced to don in jail.

"I am free, but I would like to say that I feel very sorry for my colleagues who have died in the prison," he told The Independent, the day after he was released from jail. "Many, many of my friends are dead. I saw them die. And there are many people left inside. The leaders of [the pro-democracy movement] are all still there."

After his release, Win Tin appeared to be believe, probably correctly, that his international profile provided him with a degree of protection from rearrest. He continued to speak out against the military regime and demanded that the junta be forced out and replaced by a genuine democracy.

While he was a loyal supporter of Ms Suu Kyi, he also openly disagreed with many of her positions and felt she was too conciliatory with the military and President Thein Sein.

After the Nobel Laureate was released from house arrest in 2010 and started reaching out to senior officials in the government, he argued against the NLD taking part in a series of by-elections in 2012. However, when Ms Suu Kyi decided the NLD would compete, he threw his support behind the move. The party won 43 of the 44 seats it contested.

"He was a great pillar of strength. His demise at this important political juncture of transition is a great loss not only to the NLD but also to the country. We are deeply saddened," Nyan Win, a NLD spokesman, told the Associated Press.

While incarcerated, he received several international press freedom awards, but also suffered from ill health, including heart problems, high blood pressure and inflammation of the spine. Refused his requests for pen and paper, Win Tin composed poetry in jail on the wall of his cell using ink made of brick powder and water.

He said that younger inmates would creep to his cell door to talk to him and the 15-minute visit he was allowed every fortnight was his only way of keeping up with news of what was happening outside the prison walls.

He said that he kept mentally strong by focusing on work to be done for his country's future.  "I don't know how I kept my sanity, but I knew I had to work."