U Tin Shwe

Ned Wheeler
Monday 09 June 1997 23:02

A statement issued by the Burmese government on the death of U Tin Shwe, a jailed member of Burma's National League for Democracy, said that he had been arrested "for his involvement in the instigation of civil unrest and for the attempt to form a parallel government".

Tin Shwe was not actually an MP but he was a founder member of the NLD, and a member of its 14-strong "Intellectuals Group", led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Known as "Monywa Tin Shwe", after his home town near Mandalay, he was a lawyer by profession, and made his name as a writer on Burmese law.

Tin Shwe was first sentenced in 1991, to seven years' imprisonment. In 1995 this was extended for another 10 years. At the same time as the extension of his sentence, the NLD leaders U Kyi Maung and General Tin U were also given extensions of five years - but, unlike them, Tin Shwe was not released early.

The trigger for Tin Shwe's arrest was a demonstration in Mandalay in August 1990, which he was said to have organised. The demonstration was to mark the second anniversary of the national strike which started on 8 August 1988, and which had turned the "democracy movement" into a nationwide action which the Burmese government proved unable to contain except, eventually, by military force.

But the timing of the demonstration in August 1990 had another, and more important, significance. On 27 May that year the NLD had won the Burmese general election by a landslide, taking more than 80 per cent of the seats. There had then followed a long pause, as election results continued to come in from distant parts of the country, and everyone wondered whether the military government (the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC) would hand over power to the NLD or not.

For nearly two months, NLD leaders kept very quiet, determined not to offer the SLORC any excuse to revoke the election result. Some very tentative approaches were made to the the military, but without response. By July, both within Burma and internationally, many were asking why the NLD did not simply declare itself to be the new government. The NLD eventually called a national conference on 27 July, at the Gandhi Hall in Rangoon. This meeting was held to approve a document called the Gandhi Declaration, which would call on the NLD executive to form a parliament in accordance with the election result, without waiting for SLORC approval. One day before the Gandhi Hall meeting, the military government acted to pre-empt the declaration, with a martial law order of its own which ruled illegal any unilateral attempt to form a government - and prescribed heavy penalties on offenders.

The Mandalay demonstration on 8 August came only about a week later, and was one of the first of a series of outbreaks, which in Mandalay brought heavy involvement on the part of Buddhist clergy. Tin Shwe's long prison sentence appears to reflect the amount of damage which the SLORC felt he had done to its credibility. He was also regarded by them as one of the masterminds of the Gandhi Declaration itself - and thus a person who was safer kept out of circulation.

Ned Wheeler

Tin Shwe, lawyer, writer and political campaigner: born Monywa, Burma 1930; died Rangoon 8 June 1997.

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