Veteran Myanmar pro-democracy campaigner Win Tin dies

YANGON - Win Tin, one of the founders of Myanmar's pro-democracy 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.

A former journalist and veteran campaigner, whose near two decades in jail failed to dull his commitment to the democratic cause, had suffered worsening ill health in recent weeks.

He died in hospital in Yangon early Monday, National League for Democracy party spokesman Nyan Win told AFP. A funeral service will be held on 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 his long-time assistant Yar Zar.

"We are so sad to have lost him - it is like the world has been lost," he told AFP.

"But we have many things to do. We will continue as he asked and will follow his way to democracy," Yar Zar 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 wish to become 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.

Voice of dissent

Bespectacled and with a shock of white hair, Win Tin possessed an urbane temperament that belied his steely nature.

He was unwavering in his loyalty to Suu Kyi, but was at pains to remind the NLD of its role as an opposition party when its leader took her seat in parliament alongside her former captors.

And he was unafraid to voice disagreement with the Nobel laureate - a rare attribute in a party where many are awed by "the Lady".

"The only dissent comes from me," he told AFP in an interview in June.

Win Tin's death was met with profound sadness within the democracy movement.

"We have lost something precious forever," said NLD MP Khin San Hlaing who had gathered with dozens mourners for a memorial service at a Yangon church.

Political prisoner

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.

From 1996 he was also kept in solitary confinement and allowed only fleeting 15 minute visits from family every two weeks.

He walked out of jail still wearing his blue prison uniform because he did not believe he would really be freed.

Last year, he tangled with authorities who demanded the return of the blue shirt and sarong-like longyi he had worn in prison, refusing to pay back the cost of the clothing - around US$2 (S$2.50).

He told AFP that he continued to wear a blue shirt in solidarity with dissidents still in jail and to show the world that his country was not yet truly free.

"I feel like I'm still in prison," he said.

Myanmar's junta once held about 2,000 dissidents.

The government of President Thein Sein, a former general-turned-reformer, claimed it had freed them all by the end of last year.

But rights groups say activists continue to be locked up.

Win Tin began his career as a journalist at the Agence France-Presse bureau in Yangon in the early 1950s soon after Myanmar's independence from British colonial rule.

After three years with AFP he moved to the Netherlands, where he spent another three years.

In 1962, General Ne Win seized power in a coup, plunging 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," Win Tin told AFP last year.