YANGON, Myanmar – For most of two decades, while Aung San Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest, her deputy Win Tin was condemned to solitary confinement in prison, denied even pen and paper by his jailers.
When she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her attempts to bring democracy to Burma, he was comparatively forgotten by the outside world.
But today, 83-year-old Win Tin is out of jail, free to write a weekly column and broadcast a weekly radio show, using satire to mercilessly mock the government, the military and their business allies. And, as Suu Kyi charts a course of compromise with the army, he is also one of the few people in Myanmar who commands enough respect that he can criticize her and get away with it.
Some of us would like to push the military into the Bay of Bengal, he said with a smile. She only wants to push them into Kandawgyi Lake, a reference to a lake in the heart of Yangon, the ex-capital formerly called Rangoon.
With this kind of uncompromising talk, Win Tin is a symbol of the extraordinary freedom – especially the freedom of speech and freedom from fear – that has come in the past few years to Myanmar, the country once known as Burma. But he is also a prominent reminder that reform is only in its early stages, and that Myanmar is still a long way from becoming a full democracy and ending decades of military dictatorship.
More than four years after he was released from prison, Win Tin is still wearing a blue shirt, the color of his prison uniform, and says he will not wear any other color until every political prisoner in his country is free.
His shirt also showcases his feelings about the changes that have yet to take place in Myanmar, a name adopted for the country by its military rulers.
Although I am a free man, I feel my whole country is still in jail, he said. There are no great prison walls, but we are still in chains.
Over the past two years, Myanmar’s military-backed regime has loosened its tight grip on the country to the extent that Suu Kyi, released from house arrest in 2010, was allowed to travel abroad in May 2012 for the first time in 24 years. In response, the United States has gradually lifted sanctions imposed after the violent suppression of pro-democracy protests in 1988, sending an ambassador to the country last year for the first time in more than two decades.
In 2012, their party decided to participate in a series of parliamentary elections under the military constitution.
It was a decision Win Tin opposed, but once it was taken, he took part in the campaign.
The party won 43 of the 45 seats up for grabs, and Suu Kyi entered parliament.
These days, as she spends more and more time either in parliament or on foreign trips, Suu Kyi and Win Tin appear to have become increasingly estranged.
Suu Kyi is believed to be trying to negotiate a deal with military officials to amend the constitution so that she could one day become president. Apparently keen to win their trust, she told the BBC’s Desert Island Discs radio show recently that she is fond of the army.
But Win Tin senses danger in agreeing to small changes that would leave the military’s role still entrenched. Some of us would like to withdraw this constitution and create a new one, he said.
As foreign governments remove sanctions and investors come into Burma, the pressure on the regime to agree to further changes may dissipate.
At the same time, Win Tin warns, his fellow pro-democracy politicians are already becoming comfortable with the limited changes the regime is offering, accepting a seat among the elite and losing their hunger for real change.
Many journalists, many politicians may think the situation they are in is good enough, he said. They are quite contented, and they do not want to attack the government. They don’t want to be outspoken. That is a problem.
Despite his concerns, Win Tin ended a two-hour interview on an optimistic note. While he has reservations about her tactics, he still strongly believes in Suu Kyi’s commitment to democracy and obviously still respects her. If anyone can tame the generals, she can, he says.
Meanwhile, rising press freedom and growing political awareness among the people have created a powerful force for change.