Letter from Asia: Reflections on love and marriage from a monk who fought for Burmese democracy

It is an unlikely match - one forged over resistance to dictatorship

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The Independent Online

It is only natural that in any love story a couple can reflect on their relationship in different ways.

For Ashin Gambira, the former Buddhist monk who helped lead Burma’s Saffron revolution, it is the need for a partner to care for him, to massage his head three times a day and help him remember to take his medicine. For Marie Siochana, an Australian activist, it is the way she was slowly drawn to the courage of a man who was jailed for 65 years for heading the democracy protests.

The couple married last summer in Mandalay, spontaneously, just a few days after they had met for the first time in person and just hours after they had experienced their first argument. Now they are on an unlikely honeymoon of sorts in Thailand where Mr Gambira is seeking medical treatment and trying to work out what to do next.

“He said ‘Marie, tomorrow we are going to get married’,” said Ms Siochana, when we met last week in a monastery in northern Thailand. “He didn’t ask.”

In the autumn of 2007, the 34-year-old Mr Gambira was a member of the underground All-Burma Monks Alliance when he ensured his place in history. A protest initially sparked by a monk being insulted by officials swelled into a demand for democracy that saw tens of thousands of people pour on to the streets of Burma’s biggest cities. The monks, wearing their saffron robes, led the civilians.

The regime responded violently. Dozens were killed and in the aftermath, those suspected of being involved were given severe jail sentences. Mr Gambira was tortured and kept in solitary confinement. He also caught malaria.

As President Thein Sein set Burma on a journey towards democracy, the monk was released in January 2012 only to be detained again when he tried to reopen monasteries that had been sealed. He was released once more in November that year and was among a select number of guests invited to hear Barack Obama speak at Rangoon University. He said his time in jail had left him suffering from headaches and poor memory and may have exacerbated feelings of depression that he had experienced before being jailed. “When I got to prison the strain was very bad, mentally and physically,” he said.

Ms Siochana, born in Perth and raised on the Gold Coast, said she learned about the “quite good-looking” monk via social media in 2011 and began campaigning for him. (She is involved in a number of causes, including the campaign to prove the innocence of an Australian woman, Schapelle Corby, who was convicted of drug smuggling in Bali and who was released on parole last week.)

“There was nothing romantic between us when he was a monk, obviously, but we became closer after he left. I admired him a lot and felt very drawn to him,” she said. “It was a gamble marrying someone I’d met online but I felt like I knew him so well already and knew all about his life.”

Mr Gambira has faced continued harassment in Burma where he has campaigned for labour rights and against land dispossession and has clashed with pro-government elements within the powerful Buddhist clergy. On 17 April 2012 he ended his life as a monk.

Despite that, he has been one of the few voices to speak out against what he terms Burma’s growing “Islamophobia” and the persecution of its Muslim Rohingya population. He said that there was wrong on both sides – he claimed Muslims were increasingly trying to marry Buddhist women and force them to become Muslim – but he said people had to talk to each other to resolve the conflict.

“I am working for religious reconciliation. We need to help each other and give and take,” he said, as he served up a simple breakfast of coffee and rusk biscuits in the monks’ dining area.

“We need to change the Buddhist extremists’ opinion of the Muslims and change the Muslims’ attitudes towards human rights. We must change the bad mind-set of both communities.”

Mr Gambira said many in Burma were against him – the government, Buddhist extremists and certain politicians who were “jealous of his fame”. Yet he recognised there was much for him to do.

He said he would like to return to his country and continue to work on the issues he has drawn attention to. But for now, he and his wife, who has two children from a previous relationship, feel safer in Thailand.

Some days after Ms Siochana flew to Mandalay where Mr Gambira met her on his motorbike and took her to see his family, the former monk was attacked in a village by men he believes are linked to a politician he had upset.

In the end, the couple had to flee the town. That was when he decided they should get married.

And how does he enjoy married life? Mr Gambira smiled, his teeth red with betel nut. “I need someone to look after me.”

If he could get an Australian passport, a move to Australia might be an option. But that does not seem likely at the moment. “Right now,” said Ms Siochana, “we have  no plan.”