Theirs was a friendship that bloomed during the decades of military rule, when free thinkers were locked in cells and the slightest of whisper of dissent could mean death.
During this era of fear and subjugation, “Hanthawady U Win Tin” – a hard-hitting journalist and freedom fighter – was known by almost everyone for standing up against the junta that locked him away in the notorious Insein Prison.
He was regarded as an enemy of the state and was held almost incommunicado. Little information reached him from the outside world; the rare visitor was closely watched.
Not many dared to visit him for fear of invoking the wrath of the military, but U Maung Maung Khin defied the odds and became a regular visitor of U Win Tin from 1996 until his release in 2008.
Being a student activist and then a journalist, U Maung Maung Khin and U Win Tin were acquainted with each other.
“Ignoring the danger that I could be put behind bars, I saw it as my duty to visit him in jail because I respected him,” the now 83-year-old U Maung Maung Khin said.
The infirmities of age have tied him to a sofa for some time now but his voice has lost none of its conviction and his memory is clear, especially when he recalls his days with his friend U Win Tin.
U Maung Maung Khin reveals a faint smile when he recalls the extra mile he went to get his name added to the household list that included U Win Tin’s name. During those times, only those included on the family household list of a prisoner were allowed to visit them.
“I dared not tell the person who registered me on the household list about why I was doing it because I didn’t want to make him afraid,” he said.
After getting his name on the list, he was subjected to a severe grilling by intelligence officers before he was allowed to see the prisoner.
He recalled that at their first meeting, U Win Tin passed him a note that said, “I’m glad.”
From then on, he would visit his friend fortnightly without fail along with his wife Daw Tin Yi. In the early visits, an intelligence officer would in the room recording the conversations they had.
“The intelligence officer frequently warned us to discuss only family matters, and not to talk about politics,” U Maung Maung Khin said.
When the intelligence officer was not present, he would brief U Win Tin about the state of affairs of the country and the fight against the junta.
“He read the news on a small piece of paper hidden inside a cigarette when we couldn’t give him papers or books,” U Maung Maung Khin said.
When the junta finally relaxed its grip on U Win Tin and allowed him to read books and journals, U Maung Maung Khin and his wife brought a pile of books and a basket of food when they visited him.
After U Win Tin was released in 2008, their friendship deepened, and he took care of his friend until he passed on at age 85 at Yangon General Hospital in 2014.
Five years have passed since his best friend passed on, but U Maung Maung Khin talks about him as if he is just away on a long vacation.
U Win Tin’s famous work, “What is hell on earth?” was written when he stayed at U Maung Maung Khin’s house for two years. The book was about his 20 years in prison.
“When he was admitted to the hospital in 2014, there were plenty of people who came to see him,” he recalled.
Hanthawady U Win Tin and U Maung Maung Kin first met in 1962 during a study tour of Russia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Germany and Czechoslovakia sponsored by the International Organization of Journalists Congress.
At that time, U Maung Maung Khin was editor of Lan Sin newspaper and U Win Tin was editor of Kyae Mone (The Mirror).
However, after their initial meeting their paths diverged, as U Maung Maung Khin became very active in the Burmese Communist Party, and was eventually arrested. When he was released from prison after serving a two-year sentence, he went underground to join the armed struggle.
But eventually he got disillusioned with the direction of the party, and surrendered to the authorities.
“I surrendered because I could no longer stand the acts of some of the members,” U Maung Maung Khin said bluntly.
After leaving the party, he avoided politics and spent more time with his wife and kid. He also went into business.
It was during this time of his life that he rekindled his acquaintance with U Win Tim, who continued his political advocacy with the might of his pen.
“I often had chats with U Win Tin after returning home from the underground,”
U Win Tin even gave him the right to publish his book “Ahla Shar Bon Taw” (Odyssey of Beauty)” to help tide him over during a time of financial difficulty.
He became patron of the Hanthawady U Win Tin Foundation, which his friend founded to help political prisoners and their families, as part of cherishing the memory of a man he holds so close to his heart.
“I think U Win Tin would have been a saint of the highest rank if he hadn’t led a normal life,” U Maung Maung Khin said.