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Win Tin and Hla Hla Win -- Lessons in Journalism (and Courage)

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Flickr: chase_elliott
Flickr: chase_elliott

Journalism sometimes changes people's lives. This is the lesson of Win Tin and Hla Hla Win. Win Tin is 85 and Hla Hla Win is 28 and, despite the similarity of their names, they are not related. But both are Burmese and both have heroism, a desire for freedom and years in prison in common.

Generations separate them, but both stood up to a grotesque military regime that dominated their country for decades, a group of generals with a taste for numerology, torture and massacres who finally loosened the pressure of their jackboots enough in 2011 to allow a transition to democracy.

Reporters Without Borders provided these two journalists with strong support but from a distance, because it was on the list of people and organizations banned from entering the country.

Known as "Saya" (The Sage), Win Tin is a Burmese Mandela. A member of the National League for Democracy, he was Aung San Suu Kyi's deputy when he was jailed in 1989. Under house arrest on the shore of Lake Inya, the "Lady" was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, but he went on to spend 19 years in the regime's appalling jails.

In 2004, Reporters Without Borders distributed a poster to "celebrate" this nonviolent resistance fighter's 75th birthday. It said "Happy Birthday Win Tin!" above his face between two bars. He remained in prison for another four years.

A few months after Win Tin's release, his grim baton was picked up by Hla Hla Win, a young teacher and one of Democratic Voice of Burma's video-reporters. She was arrested for interviewing Buddhist monks, who distinguished themselves during the 2007 "Saffron Revolution" until it was crushed. Determined to silence DVB's small group of video-journalists, the authorities sentenced her to 27 years in prison on various trumped-up charges including driving an unregistered motorcycle.

After the military dictator, Gen. Than Shwe, stood down to make way for Thein Sein's "election" as the new president, the DVB's video-journalists were released in January 2012 and prior censorship was abolished on August 20. Even if no privately-owned daily has yet been permitted, even if the draconian laws have not yet been formally repealed and even if the generals' children are now trying to get into the media business, the "Burmese spring" is clearly visible on the newsstands.

Reporters Without Borders was finally removed from the Burmese blacklist on August 30, 2012, along with the Lady's children and former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright. And so we went to Rangoon a few weeks later to see the Burmese spring blossom, and found ourselves sitting opposite Hla Hla Win in a café.

Just a year ago, Reporters Without Borders' secretary-general was sending out thousands of copies of a letter seeking support for this young woman. And what does she want now? To become a real journalist by receiving training. Now that she can emerge from the shadows, she wants to take advantage of this newly-acquired freedom to interview, investigate and edit reports in order to function as a watchdog in Burma's future democracy.

In a Rangoon neighborhood where stray dogs patrol the intersections, we knocked on the door of Win Tin's tiny shack. Forced to eat with his gums for 18 years because his torturers refused him dentures, Win Tin received us in a blue shirt, the color that inmates wear. He was wearing it in a tribute to Burma's political prisoners. Even if no journalists are any longer being held in connection with their work, Burma still has political prisoners.

The room was decorated with a pink painting of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Reporters Without Borders poster. "I suffered a lot but I was never abandoned," Win Tin said several times. The military offered him a conditional release in return for a commitment to abandon all political and journalistic activities, but he always ruled out any possibility of a deal.

He still has not abandoned his activities and he offered us the finest possible definition of freedom of information. "It is the freedom that allows you to verify the existence of all the other freedoms," he said. In other words, the most fundamental freedom. Despite his political involvement, the old man still regards himself as journalist who prefers an editorial line to a party line.

We asked him whether, after the hopefully successful conclusion of his long fight for freedom of information, he thought that journalists could change a country and the lives of its inhabitants. We thought he would mention Burma, a country where journalists have contributed so much to emancipation.

But we did not get the expected answer. "We have not had media freedom for 40 years and we cannot change anything yet," he said. "But where you come from, you have had this freedom for a long time and you can change things."

Reporters Without Borders just released a report entitled "The Burmese Spring" about the rapid progress that freedom of information has made in Burma, but also about the limits of this progress and the dangers it faces.