Despite reforms, harassment from authorities continues

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The Independent Online

Just a few weeks ago, Ashin Gambira was seated in the front row of a Rangoon university hall as President Barack Obama gave a cautious welcome to reform in Burma.

The release of the former Buddhist monk – who was serving a six-decade sentence for his role in the 2007 democracy uprising – was seen as one of the signs of a softening of oppression in Burma.

But yesterday Mr Gambira was behind bars again, in what his family says is just the latest incident of harassment by the authorities.

In autumn 2007 Mr Gambira was among the organisers of the Saffron Revolution, when up to 100,000 monks and ordinary citizens marched through Burma's streets to call for fairer prices and democratic reforms. He was jailed for 63 years but released earlier this year as part of a government amnesty.

The family of the outspoken government critic said he was arrested over the weekend and it was told he had been sent to the notorious Insein jail in Rangoon. "We are so worried for him," his sister, Ma Lwin, said.

The 33-year-old monk has said that during his four years of incarceration, he regularly suffered mental and physical torture, including beatings and being kept in solitary confinement. In an interview with The Independent in Rangoon last month, Mr Gambira said his time in prison had left him suffering from headaches and bad memory and may have exacerbated feelings of depression.

"When I got to prison the strain was very bad, mentally and physically," he said.

He said few doctors in Burma were willing to treat him for fear of falling foul of the authorities and that he wanted to go abroad for proper treatment. Yet he said the government had failed to give him proper identification papers to allow him to get a passport, something that other former political prisoners have complained about.

"I have two doctors who give me advice about healthcare but they do so in secret because nobody will dare treat me," he said, sitting at an outdoor restaurant overlooking the Rangoon Sailing Club. "If I don't get medical treatment in Burma, I've decided I will go get it abroad."

The arrest of Mr Gambira is just the latest in a series of problems to confront the monk since he was released from Myaungmya jail in January. A month after his release he was detained by the police after he and other monks tried to re-enter their Rangoon monastery, which had been locked up by the authorities. He was detained again in March after visiting refugees in Kachin state, where ethnic conflict continues to rage.

In April he was obliged to formally disrobe and return to layman status after he was refused entry to several monasteries, which were apparently fearful of his "political status".

While monks such as Mr Gambira were at the forefront of the democracy protests, other members of the clergy remain under the influence of the authorities, who try to maintain a firm grip on the powerful institution.

The plight of Mr Gambira and other political prisoners was recognised by Mr Obama when he visited Burma last month and met several of them. Mr Gambira was also given a front-row seat to hear the US President speak at the University of Rangoon. "I thought it was good. He mentioned a lot of facts but he needs to consider other important factors," he said of Mr Obama's address.

Since an election in 2010 and the appointment last year of a nominally civilian government, headed by President Thein Sein, the authorities have embarked on democratic reforms, among them the release of most political prisoners.