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U Tin Oo, Embattled Pro-Democracy Leader in Myanmar, Dies at 97

U Tin Oo, a former Burmese armed forces chief and minister of defense who turned against his country’s repressive government to become a leader of the pro-democracy movement there, died on Saturday in Yangon, Myanmar. He was 97.

His personal assistant, U Myint Oo, confirmed his death, in a hospital. He said that Mr. Tin Oo had a weak heart and died of kidney failure and pulmonary edema.

Once one of the most powerful figures in what is now Myanmar, Mr. Tin Oo founded the National League for Democracy, the country’s main opposition party, with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi during a violent failed pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

Three years later, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest. She is again in detention, and it was not clear whether she had been informed of Mr. Tin Oo’s death.

“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would be deeply saddened to hear of his passing, as she has lost a trusted confidant,” Mr. Myint Oo said.

In 2013, she told The New York Times that Mr. Tin Oo was “like a father to me.”

Mr. Tin Oo became deputy chairman and then chairman of the party, known as the N.L.D., which won an election in 1990 by a huge margin but was prevented from taking power by the ruling military junta.

Soon afterward, he was one of dozens of pro-democracy activists and party members arrested and sentenced to long prison terms by the junta.

He went on to be one of a circle of former military officers, known as the “uncles,” who advised Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi during her 15 years under house arrest.

After her release and the establishment of a democratic government, which ended decades of military rule, Mr. Tin Oo continued to speak out about human rights and issues concerning Myanmar’s development.

“Personally, I know transition is difficult and challenging,” he said in a speech at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference in 2014.

“I have been a general, a political prisoner, a monk, a law student, a lawyer and a founding member of a political party, the N.L.D.,” he said. “I had to face up to the harm I did to people when I served in the army. For this, I have apologized and committed myself to the cause of human rights and democracy.”

“I love the military but I love the people more,” he told The New York Times in 2020. “That is why I stood by the people.”

Mr. Tin Oo was born on March 3, 1927, in the port city of Pathein, along the Pathein River in southern Burma. He was the oldest of six siblings.

“He served his country since he was 16 years old, fighting against fascist Japan and the Chinese Communists,” said U Tun Myint, the spokesman for his political party. “He received the highest title in the military, the title of Thura.”

Mr. Tin Oo joined the military in 1946 as a second lieutenant and rose to battalion commander in 1951.

He was decorated for leading campaigns against the Karen National Union and other armed ethnic groups, as well as against the Communist Party of Burma.

He was the commander in chief of the armed forces during the bloody crackdown on student protests surrounding the funeral of U Thant, the former secretary general of the United Nations, in 1974.

In 1976, amid what some analysts saw as a power struggle, Mr. Tin Oo was accused of corruption and of being an accessory to an aborted coup. He was imprisoned until 1980, when he was released as part of a general amnesty.

He was arrested again a decade later for his opposition activities and spent many more years in prison and under house arrest.

His last arrest was in May 2003, when he and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi were seized after their motorcade was attacked by a pro-government mob in what some supporters said was an assassination attempt. They were both released in 2010.

“When a group of terrorists approached Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s car, U Tin Oo got out and shouted orders to the terrorists: ‘You guys, this is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s car, back off.’” said Mr. Tun Myint, who was in the motorcade.

Both Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and Mr. Tin Oo escaped, though dozens of others were believed to have been killed. They were then both arrested.

In 2015, the N.L.D. won the nation’s first truly democratic election and began making the difficult transition from an opposition group to a ruling party.

The party won an overwhelming victory in a second election in 2020. But it was ousted in a coup the next year. A nationwide uprising and a violent, continuing crackdown followed.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested and convicted in a series of cases that seemed intended to keep her in detention indefinitely. Mr. Tin Oo was allowed to remain in his home and continued to speak out in support of democracy.

Mr. Tin Oo’s survivors include his wife, Dr. Tin Moe Wai, who is now 99 and whom he met when she was a doctor at a hospital where he was being treated for combat injuries, and his son Thant Zin Oo.

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Nathan
Nathan

Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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