YANGON – Win Tin, one of the founders of Myanmar’s prodemocracy opposition and the nation’s longest-serving political prisoner, died Monday at the age of 84 after battling for decades to bring freedom to a nation that suffered under military rule.
The veteran campaigner — whose near two decades in prison failed to dull his commitment to the democratic cause — had suffered worsening ill health in recent weeks.
He died at a Yangon hospital early Monday, National League for Democracy party spokesman Nyan Win said. A funeral service will be held Wednesday.
A towering figure within the democracy movement, Win Tin formed the NLD with Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988 and was imprisoned the following year in the wake of a student-led pro-democracy uprising.
He reiterated his support for party leader Suu Kyi in the days before he died, according to longtime assistant Yar Zar.
“We are so sad to have lost him — it is like the world has been lost,” he said.
“But we have many things to do. We will continue as he asked and will follow his way to democracy,” he added.
Myanmar began its emergence from nearly half a century of military rule in 2011, under a quasi-civilian government that has won international plaudits for reforms, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners.
Suu Kyi, who was freed from years of house arrest in 2010, has also been welcomed into parliament at the helm of her party and has indicated her desire to run for president after 2015 elections.
But the army retains a tight grip on the fledgling parliament, casting doubt over Suu Kyi’s chances for the top job, and campaigners stress there is still a long way to go before the country can enjoy full democracy.
Win Tin was freed by the former military junta from Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison as part of an amnesty in September 2008.
During his imprisonment he was interrogated for up to five days at a time, deprived of sleep, hooded and beaten, and said torture at the hands of the authorities was routine.
From 1996 he was also kept in solitary confinement, allowed only fleeting 15 minute visits from family every two weeks.
On the day of his release he walked out of prison still wearing his blue uniform because he did not believe he would really be freed.
Last year he said that he continued to wear a blue shirt in solidarity with dissidents still imprisoned to show the world that his country was still not truly free.
“Although I was released five years ago, I feel like I’m still in prison,” he said.
Myanmar’s junta once kept about 2,000 political opponents, dissidents and journalists imprisoned.
The country has held a series of high-profile political prisoner releases under President Thein Sein, a ex-general-turned-reformer whose administration has claimed it has now freed all dissidents.
But rights groups say authorities have continued to lock up activists, mainly for protesting without permission.
Win Tin began his career as a journalist working as a night editor at the Agence France-Presse bureau in Yangon in the early 1950s soon after Myanmar won its independence from British colonial rule.
After three years with AFP he moved to the Netherlands, where he spent three years.
In 1962, Gen. Ne Win seized power in a coup and plunged the country into tyranny.
“The reason I became a politician is because of military governments. They put pressure on us. They seized the newspapers and publishing houses. As I have many contacts in politics, I reached into politics,” he said last year.