By Seinenu M. Thein-Lemelson 12 August 2022
U Tin Tut, who was one of the “elders” and original members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), as well as a former parliamentarian, former political prisoner, and former student leader, died at his home in Sydney, Australia, on Aug. 8 at the age of 92. U Tin Tut was my father’s first cousin, someone I called “aba” or “older uncle.” He was also the first “political prisoner” I ever met, the person whose life inspired my scholarship on Myanmar’s democracy movement.
When I was reunited with my Uncle Tut in 2014, after many years apart, I would ask him to tell me stories about his political struggles and his run for parliament in 1990. After dinner, when the entire family would sit around the living room, my uncle’s middle son, who seemed just as excited to talk about the topic as I was, would say: “Dad, tell her about Aung San Suu Kyi; do not forget about that,” or “What about the meetings you had with the Thakins, tell her about that.” Thakins were members of the influential Burmese nationalist group Dobama Asiayone (We Burmans Association) set up to oppose British colonial rule in the 1930s.
My Uncle Tut would lean back in his chair, smile, and nod, but said relatively little about politics or his participation in it. Instead, we talked about other family members—my father, my other uncles, my aunts, my cousins—what they were doing, who was pursuing this or particularly talented at that, and how much they reminded him of other relatives I had never met. “And what about Thant,” he would say, “He is just like his father. And May Than, oh your grandfather loved her so.”
I knew Uncle Tut needed time and space to tell his story—away even from his children and grandchildren—and in the right moment, he would recount what he knew. So, after many nights in Sydney, I walked with my uncle and aunt to the hotel where I was staying, a half-mile from where they lived. My aunt had knee surgery a few years back and my Uncle Tut, his hips failing him, also walked with a cane. I did not want them to walk such a great distance. I told them that I would hire a taxi even for a few blocks, but they would not have it. Then I told them we could do it on another occasion. I told them that we had plenty of time; I could come back to Sydney next summer and spend more time with them. But once my uncle had it in mind that he would tell me what he knew, he could not be persuaded to turn back.
Undated pictures of U Tin Tut / Courtesy of U Tin Tut’s family
Born in the Irrawaddy Delta in 1931, in the village of Einme, U Tin Tut lived through British colonialism; lived through the Japanese occupation and their eventual overthrow; lived through the era of the Thakins and the fight for independence; lived through the parliamentary era; lived through General Ne Win’s dictatorship; lived through the 1988 pro-democracy movement and Ne Win’s own overthrow; his own election to parliament in 1990; six years in prison; and then migration to Australia.
U Tin Tut’s father was the headmaster of a government school, first in Einme, and then in Pyinmana, where Uncle Tut received his primary education. He recalled to me in 2014 that “living in Pyinmana made all the difference, because there were a lot of politically active people, you see. There was not any one political cause that they all gathered around, but because my father was a teacher at the [government-run school] we always entertained guests from different places. And when they met they would talk about political issues. Even though at first I did not understand what they were saying, I would sit on the floor and listen to them. In that way, I came to be interested in politics.”
During the Japanese occupation, Uncle Tut was not able to attend school, but continued to be politically socialized by his father’s friends: “Many political types continued to come to our home in the evenings, drank tea, and talked about the occupation with my father. There was the Dobama Asiayone led by the Thakins. The Thakins from Dobama were actually older people, not terribly educated or intellectual, unlike the Thakins who were university students, but I learned a lot from them nevertheless.”
After the war ended, Uncle Tut was sent to Pathein to attend high school at the Cosmopolitan Po Karen High School. It was in Pathein that Uncle Tut first became involved with the student union. This was how Tin Tut became part of the long tradition of student leaders (the kyauntha gaungzaungs as they are called) and activists in Myanmar.
After he entered university, his involvement in a student strike in 1953 landed him his first stint in prison. Uncle Tut recounted that his experience of imprisonment in the 1950s did not have the same dehumanizing qualities that he would later experience as a political prisoner under the military regime known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Doctors made regular visits to the prisons and as the resident physician felt Uncle Tut was too thin, he was put on a regiment of fresh cow’s milk. He recalled that prisoners were not only allowed to read, but that books and newspapers were plentiful, and they could order whatever they needed from the outside. Indeed, he seemed to recall this period of his life with great fondness. My own father, who was six years younger than Uncle Tut, and tasked with bringing food and supplies to the prison, remembered it differently. He told me that they would both sit and cry during the prison visits.
In 1988, Uncle Tut once again became involved in national politics. Along with U Win Tin, with whom he was contemporaries and had a close, lifelong friendship, he became one of the earliest members and leaders of the NLD. During this period, he spent copious amounts of time in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s home. In 1990, he ran for parliament as the NLD candidate for Einme. He won a resounding victory against his military-backed opponent but was never allowed to take office. Instead, along with hundreds of other elected parliamentarians, U Tin Tut was illegally detained and then imprisoned for six years, much of which he spent in solitary confinement.
At different points during his imprisonment he found himself crossing paths with a younger generation of activists, including members of the 88 Generation, such as Ko Jimmy, who was among the four democracy activists hanged by the regime in late July, Ko Pyone Cho, and Ko Min Ko Naing. Ko Pyone Cho recalled in interviews I conducted with him in 2013 that much of his own political socialization during his first year in Insein Prison involved listening to my Uncle Tin Tut talk with his contemporaries, including figures such as Dr. Maung Maung Kyaw, who had been chair of the Student Union in the 1950s, and the leftist writer and former student leader U Lay Myint. Uncle Tut seemed to have a particular soft spot for Ko Jimmy, often recalling with dismay how the prison guards would not let him share some of his food provisions with his younger prison mate. Both in the movement and in prison, Uncle Tut was known for his quick temper, raspy voice, passion, and authenticity. He was also known for his loyalty and warmth as a friend and comrade.
U Tin Tut was one of the few parliamentarians who made the difficult decision to migrate out of Myanmar. After his release from prison in 1996, his wife beseeched him to leave and he reluctantly agreed. Indeed, were it not for his wife, I believe Uncle would have stubbornly stayed on in Myanmar, continuing to struggle against the dictatorship, as many of his peers and comrades did, until the very end.
While he never fully articulated it to me, I do not doubt that it pained him to go into exile. Yet, if he had never migrated out of Myanmar, he certainly would not have lived until he was 92, such that he could pass away peacefully at his home, with his wife by his side, and his four children and six grandchildren close by. He would not have seen his sons marry, his grandchildren graduate. And he certainly would not have been able to tell me—his “niece”—about his time in prison. His stories would have never planted a seed inside of me that grew into the many friendships that I would have with democracy activists and former political prisoners. His narratives of political strife and imprisonment would not have compelled me to return to Myanmar to search out his history and, in doing so, to document the democracy movement in the many imperfect and incomplete ways that I have.
I am told that had my Uncle Tin Tut died in Myanmar before the coup, the community of political prisoners in Yangon would have gathered and given him the hero’s burial that he deserved. His coffin would have been draped in a flag of the NLD, for all the sacrifices that he made. Responsible members of the community would have read proclamations that the political organizations to which he had belonged over the course of his lifetime, including the NLD and student unions, released him from all future obligations and duties, allowing his spirit to be set free. While I cannot perform this rite for him, there is a part of me that recognizes that, in the last decades of his life, he needed no such release, no such liberation. He had become free on his own terms.
Seinenu M. Thein-Lemelson, PhD, is lecturer in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).