Less than two weeks after meeting US President Barack Obama, U Gambira is once again behind bars.
The former monk, who is still widely known by his monastic name, first came to prominence in 2007 as one of the leaders of the Saffron Revolution. Arrested and imprisoned for his involvement in that mass uprising, he was released earlier this year as part of an amnesty for political prisoners.
Now, once again, he is a prisoner, languishing in Cell 5, Building 5 of Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison following his arrest on Dec. 1.
It was just three weeks ago that U Gambira was among a small group of prominent activists sitting in the front row when Obama delivered a speech at Rangoon University on Nov. 19. He spoke with the president, urging him to be cautious about lifting the remaining US sanctions on Burma.
According to his brother Aung Kyaw Kyaw, the former monk also asked Obama to help rehabilitate hundreds of monks who were tortured in prison following the brutal crackdown that ended the 2007 protests.
Speaking to me over the phone on Sunday, Aung Kyaw Kyaw said that his brother suffers from severe headaches and other medical problems stemming from the four years he spent in prison, where he was serving a 63-year sentence imposed on him five years ago.
His release in January of this year along with many other well-known dissidents was widely welcomed as sign of the nominally civilian government’s commitment to reforms. Now, however, many are having second thoughts about the government’s sincerity.
Although several amnesties have been announced since President Thein Sein assumed power nearly two years ago, hundreds of political prisoners remain in detention in Burma. “Far from releasing the remaining prisoners, now the government is locking up more,” said Bo Kyi of the Thailand-based Assistance Association of Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP).
“It’s a preemptive move by the authorities,” said Bo Kyi, explaining that the government fears that U Gambira could assume a leadership position in the growing movement against the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division. A recent crackdown on Letpadaung protesters that left dozens of monks badly injured has raised the specter of nationwide demonstrations like those last seen in 2007.
According to AAPP, 26 people were arrested in November alone for taking part in peaceful protests, of whom three have received prison sentences. This is despite the fact that the government released 54 political prisoners ahead of Obama’s historic visit to Rangoon.
Since late last year, at least 93 peaceful demonstrators and other activists have faced charges for their activism, according to AAPP. This does not include the arrest and detention of dozens of local people in Kachin State who have been accused of having ties to the Kachin Independence Army, with whom the Burmese military resumed fighting last June following the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire, says Bo Kyi.
This situation is clearly unacceptable in a country that professes to be moving toward democracy. It shows that despite all the talk of sweeping political and economic reforms, the government continues to regard its own citizens with the same deep distrust that characterized the former junta.
It also means that the international community may have to reconsider the reformist credentials of President Thein Sein. As Obama said in his speech on Nov. 19, “a single political prisoner is one too many.”
The charges against U Gambira demonstrate that the current government is not above resorting to the absurd tactics of its more overtly oppressive predecessor. Most relate to the fact that shortly after his release from prison, he briefly stayed at a monastery that had been closed by the authorities. He faces a year in prison for trespassing and 10 years for breaking and entry. In addition, he could spend another two years in prison for “damaging the dignity of the nation.”
His brother, Aung Kyaw Kyaw, said he heard that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had recently asked the authorities to immediately release a particular group of political prisoners, including U Gambira. As a result, he said, his brother could soon be released on bail.
That would be a positive development, but it doesn’t change the fact that the government continues to use the threat of arbitrary arrest to intimidate dissidents. Until this is no longer the norm in Burma, it will be meaningless to speak of Burma as a democratic or even democratizing nation.