Just a few weeks ago, Ashin Gambira was seated in the front row of a Rangoon university building as President Barack Obama gave a cautious welcome to the reforms in Burma. The release earlier in the year of the former Buddhist monk, who had been ordered to serve 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 the country that the US president referred to in his address.
But today Mr Gambira is back behind bars again, in what his family say is just the latest incident of harassment by the authorities.
In the autumn 2007 Mr Gambira was among the leaders 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 in which many political prisoners were set free.
The family of the outspoken government critic say he was arrested over the weekend and they were told he had been sent to the notorious Insein jail in Rangoon. “We are so worried for him,” said a sister, Ma Lwin.
The 33-year-old monk has said that during his four years of incarceration, he regularly suffered both 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 that he experienced before he was jailed. For seven of eight months in prison he suffered from malaria, he said. International organisations have expressed their concerns about his health. “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 Yangon Sailing Club, where oarsmen in single-berth sculls slid over the waters of Inya lake. “If I don’t get medical treatment in Burma, I’ve decided I will go and 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”.
“When the monks were released we went to our old monasteries, but we were not allowed to enter,” he said. “They are afraid of the government. We went to another monastery but we were not allowed to enter there.”
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. When The Independent tried to visit Dr Bhaddanta Kumara, head of the state Buddhist organisation, to ask about Mr Gambira’s case, officials at the Kaba Aye pagoda refused permission. The spokesman for Burma’s foreign ministry could not be contacted.
For all his problems, Mr Gambira has no regrets about what he and his fellow monks did in September 2007, when their protests so rattled the junta’s generals.
“I am very pleased with what we did,” he said. “This revolution started by the monks had been planned since 2003 or 2004 and it became a reality in 2007. Many monks died and others were sent to prison but we started a revolution that had a lot of impact. It was a milestone in history.”
He added: “The situation has not changed fully but I hope it will change. This is the transition period from military dictatorship. I recognise that the government is moving towards democracy, but they need to know the value of human rights and democracy. If they are honest, they need to do everything they have said they will do. They have to keep their promises.”
Though he may no longer be a member of the clergy, Mr Gambira is still apparently respected by many of Burma’s monks. “I admire Gambira because of his courage and bravery and because other monks did not speak out,” said U Wanna, 45, a Naypyidaw-based monk who was visiting Rangoon and catching the ferry across the Yangon river on a recent morning. “It’s up to him when he decides to stop being a monk. No one can force him to stop – not even associations like the state monks’ organisation.”
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 convocation hall of the University of Yangon. “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 a series of democratic reforms, among them the release of most political prisoners including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. However, activists say there is much to be done before the country can consider itself a genuine democracy.
Mr Gambira’s family believe he has been detained to prevent him from joining other monks who have been involved in protests against the expansion of a copper-mining project, jointly owned by the Burmese military and a Chinese company, in the north of the country. His mother, Daw Yay, said that her son had been arrested on Saturday in Rangoon where he and she had gone to buy medicine.
She said Mr Gambira had met a representative of the British embassy in Rangoon and had been due to talk with someone from Amnesty International, but was arrested and taken to Rangoon’s Thanlyin police station before he could keep the second appointment.
“They just want to make sure [he does not get involved] with other monks who are now demonstrating over the copper mine,” she said. A policeman at Thanlyin said Mr Gambira had since been moved to Insein jail but could provide no further information.
Mr Gambira’s mother today said she had been told her son had been charged with three offences that related to when he forced his way into the locked monasteries after being released from jail in January, including trespass and entering a monastery without permission. She said Mr Gambira’s brother had tried to see him at Insein jail but that officials there said he was not being held at the prison.
The British embassy confirmed that a diplomat had spoken with Mr Gambira last Friday. A spokesman for the US embassy said: “We are monitoring reports of U Gambira’s detention. We urge the government of Burma to be fully transparent and follow due process of law.”
Campaigners said his detention underscored the difficulties still confronting dissidents in Burma. “Of all the recently released political prisoners, Gambira has been most critical of the government and has faced constant harassment as a result,” said Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK. “The government seems to be using him as a warning to other released prisoners about what will happen if they step out of line.”
Catherine Baber, director of Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific programme, said the former Amnesty prisoner of conscience was being detained on allegations relating to “minor” offences. She added: “Amnesty is concerned that detaining U Gambira at this time will further undermine his health, and is in no way warranted by the nature of the offences he is alleged to have committed.”
Saffron revolution: a brutal response
Burma’s so-called Saffron Revolution was a series of anti-government protests, led by Buddhist monks, which engulfed the country from mid-August to late October in 2007.
The demonstrations were triggered by an unannounced decision from the ruling military junta to slash fuel subsidies, resulting in a sudden spike in food, energy and transport prices.
Eventually, the monks were joined by ordinary citizens as disaffection with the military leadership spread. As the marches swelled, with more than 100,000 demonstrators on the streets at their height in late September, the authorities launched a violent crackdown, beating protesters and arresting more than 1,000 people.
The brutality – which saw monks and protesters killed – drew international censure, with the United States and France, among others, announcing fresh sanctions against the junta. ALEX WARD