Prison to Parliament for poet who beat ex-general

In a case of the pen being mightier than the sword, U Tin Thit, a poet and former political prisoner, emerged triumphant in a nail-biting electoral battle against former defence minister U Wai Lwin.
In a case of the pen being mightier than the sword, U Tin Thit, a poet and former political prisoner, emerged triumphant in a nail-biting electoral battle against former defence minister U Wai Lwin.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

KYI DAUNG KAN (Myanmar) • It was the poet versus the soldier - and the poet won.

Of all the high drama surrounding the electoral triumph of the long-suppressed democracy movement in Myanmar, there was perhaps no victory as eloquent as the nail-biter won by U Tin Thit, a poet and former political prisoner.

He defeated one of the most powerful candidates on the ballot, a former general who, until a few months ago, was the minister for defence.

U Tin Thit's win was part of the landslide victory last Sunday by the National League for Democracy, the party led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. It won 387 seats in Parliament, compared with just 42 for the military-backed governing party, according to results announced on Saturday.

"The ballot is stronger than the bullet," said U Tin Thit, sitting in a cavernous ochre colonial building that a local landlord offered for use as his campaign headquarters.

There were hundreds of upsets of powerful people in the polls, but his seemed especially improbable.

The district, part of the capital, Naypyitaw, has more than 7,000 soldiers and 2,000 police officers listed as residents. They seemed the natural constituents of former defence minister U Wai Lwin.

And, for the most part, they were. But as the votes were counted, the poet noticed an encouraging trend at polling places outside the military and police barracks. Several hundred had broken ranks, giving him a razor-thin margin of victory. He received 27,321 votes, just 176 more than the former general.

That was not the end of the story. A dispute ensued, along with a test of electoral integrity in a country with a long history of rigged elections. The incumbent, who had served in the military with the head of the election commission, demanded a recount.

The poet feared the worst. However, he received help from two lawyers who argued that the country's electoral laws did not allow for a recount unless there was a tie.

Hours pased. It seemed that the election commission might order a recount. Then it announced its decision: The result was final.

Poetic justice, his supporters might say.

It has been a long road from prison to Parliament for U Tin Thit, 49, who also goes by the name Yi Mon. He was halfway through medical school in 1988 when the country rose up against the military. He joined the campaign for democracy and, like thousands of other student activists, was locked up, spending seven years in the country's primitive jails.

He is no starry-eyed romantic. He spent the past few years as an environmental activist and has studied better uses for the country's vast natural resources.

But he has a way with words. The reason voters chose him? "Human dignity had been lost for 50 years," he said. "They wanted it back."

Nationwide, there were more than 10 poets registered as candidates for the National League for Democracy.

The leadership of the party fielded a very diverse slate of candidates. Among them were 54 farmers, 22 teachers, 43 shopkeepers, 33 doctors, four tailors, four unemployed people, two newspaper deliverymen, a fisherman, a day labourer, an ice factory owner, a goldsmith and a painter.

Only 13 party candidates listed politician as their profession.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2015, with the headline 'Prison to Parliament for poet who beat ex-general'. Print Edition | Subscribe