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IFEX members welcomed Tuesday's release of U Win Tin, the longest-serving political prisoner in Burma.

The frail 79-year-old journalist and founding member of the opposition National League of Democracy (NLD) spent 19 years in prison. He was among 9,000 prisoners reportedly ordered released ahead of elections promised in 2010.

Five other political prisoners were also freed, says exile-run magazine "The Irrawaddy", including another well-known writer, U Aung Soe Myint, and four members of the NLD.

"Journalists across Southeast Asia - indeed, across Asia, around the world - will be cheering U Win Tin's release. If there has to be just one man to symbolise the struggle for press freedom in Southeast Asia in the past two decades, that man would have to be U Win Tin," says the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

Shortly after his release from the notorious Insein prison on 23 September, U Win Tin told journalists from a friend's home, "I am going to continue practising politics because I am a political man," he said. "I am going to continue supporting Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD.

"I am about to be 80. But I will keep fighting until the emergence of democracy in this country," he said.

IFEX members, including Mizzima News, SEAPA, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), had for years been waging a campaign for U Win Tin's release.

First arrested on 4 July 1989, U Win Tin was sentenced to a total of 20 years in jail on various charges, including anti-government propaganda. He was the editor of the daily newspaper "Hanthawathi" and vice-president of the Burma Writers Association, as well as NLD leader Suu Kyi's political mentor.

He was mistreated on various occasions during his near-two decades in prison, such as in 1996, after the authorities discovered he had provided the United Nations with information about prison conditions, says RSF.

Despite widespread reports of his failing health, promises of his release in 2004 and 2005 were not fulfilled, and the International Committee of the Red Cross had been barred from visiting him since 2006.

For his commitment towards the struggle for press freedom, U Win Tin received several press freedom awards, including the Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize awarded by UNESCO, WAN's Golden Pen of Freedom and the RSF award for press freedom.

Burma, ruled by a military dictatorship that refused to recognise the NLD's landslide victory in 1990, continues to be one of the world's worst free expression violators. The country has no independent press. More than 2,000 people are still in jail in Burma for their political beliefs, at least eight of them Burmese journalists and writers, says SEAPA. "The world must continue to push for their unconditional release as well," SEAPA says.

U Win Tin's release comes nearly a year after the military junta's brutal crackdown during the "Saffron Revolution", the pro-democracy demonstrations led by Burma's monks. Hundreds were killed, thousands were imprisoned, monasteries were raided, and countless demonstrators are still missing. According to "The Irrawaddy", security has been tightened over the past few weeks, especially in the areas that were home to last year's demonstrations, and monks have complained about being interrogated.

Protests are planned worldwide to mark the one-year anniversary of the Saffron Revolution on 27 September. The U.S. Campaign for Burma is calling for people to organise events for Burma - film screenings, educational presentations, "wear red" day - on the day. To sign up and to receive materials for your event, or to see what is happening in your area, see:

Meanwhile, eight Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, released a joint-statement on 23 September urging the people of Burma to "maintain nonviolence, determination and vigilance - despite the odds," reports "The Irrawaddy".

Visit these links:
- Mizzima News:
- CPJ:
- IFJ:
- RSF:
- WAN:
- "The Irrawaddy":
(Photo of U Win Tin courtesy of RSF)

(24 September 2008)

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