Prominent author and journalist U Soe Thein – better known by his pen name Maung Wuntha – passed away on August 11 at a private hospital in Yangon, after battling cancer for more than a year.
His journalism career spanned almost five decades and was punctuated by a successful run for parliament as a National League for Democracy (NLD) representative in the 1990 election and then three periods of imprisonment for political activities.
After being released from prison a third time in 2001 he returned to journalism and in 2010 founded political affairs publication Pyithu Khit (The People’s Age). Despite establishing the weekly journal to cover the 2010 election, Maung Wuntha maintained a healthy scepticism for Myanmar’s political transition.
In recent years he was appointed to senior positions in leading industry bodies, including secretary of the Interim Press Council, and was widely respected by senior and young journalists alike for his integrity and commitment to the profession.
Pyithu Khit chief of staff Ko Nyan Hlaing Lin told The Myanmar Times last week he felt “so sad” to lose his teacher.
“Our country is changing and Maung Wuntha provided important coverage of the political scene so it is also a loss for our country,” he said.
Ko Arr Mahn, executive editor of 7-Day News, said the industry had lost one of its “giants”.
“Maung Wuntha had a wealth of experience. It is a loss for our country and all journalists. He was fighting with his pen since before we were even old enough to write and expressed his words freely un the paper,” he said.
“Now we can write freely and the country is changing to a new way. I just feel so sad that he is not able to write about it.”
Born on April 17, 1945, in Waw township, Bago Region, he began writing articles in high school and was a student leader at Rangoon University in the early 1960s. He was expelled after the military coup in 1962 and a warrant was issued for his arrest but after the 1964 amnesty he became a journalist, working for the Working People’s Daily, New Light of Myanmar, Hanthawaddy and Vanguard Daily as a reporter, editor, and columnist. In 1977 he was awarded a National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) fellowship for professional journalists and attended the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
He was dismissed from the state-owned media for his involvement in the 1988 uprising. After the coup he joined the NLD and was appointed a member of its central executive committee. He was elected as the representative for Waw in Bago Region in the 1990 election but imprisoned from 1989-90, 1990-92 and 1996-2001. He took up journalism again after his release in mid 2001.
He published more than 60 books, specialising in political biographies and translations of works on international affairs. Until shortly before his death he was writing regular columns for more than six magazines.
He was also a member of the selection committee for the National Literary Awards and chairman of the National Press Award Committee. He was elected chairman of the Myanmar Journalists Association in August 2012 and vice chairman of the Interim Press Council the following month. He passed on his knowledge to younger journalists both informally and formally through various media training programs in Yangon.
National League for Democracy patron U Tin Oo said he learned “many valuable lessons” from Maung Wuntha. “I had a great deal of respect for him, for his experience in literature and media,” he said.
“When we first met he was a writer but after 1988 he … dedicated himself to the democratic cause.
“He was an honourable man in every way. Right up until his last breath he fought so that all writers and journalists could enjoy freedom of expression.”
88 Generation leader Min Ko Naing recalled a time when a prisoner in a Myanmar jail looked wistfully up at the moon between the iron bars and muttered, “Damn, the moonlight is bright.”
“Another prisoner told him, ‘Don’t blame the moon … Nature is innocent.’ The man who soothed his friend is Saya Maung Wuntha,” he said.
“Not only did he have a love of the beauty of nature but he also showed that courtesy and a gentlemanly response can defeat harsh words and rudeness.”
Maung Wuntha was buried at Yay We cemetery on August 14. He is survived by his wife Daw Myint Myint, four children and two grandchildren.