Yesterday, Burmese state media announced that Ashin Gambira, a Buddhist monk and recently released political prisoner, will once again face criminal charges in a Burmese court. He has been charged with “breaking Buddhist code of conduct,” breaking into two monasteries, and living in a third monastery, all of which had been shut down by the government in 2007.
The current charges against him suggest that the changes in Burma are fleeting, and this development warrants continued international support for the democracy movement there.
Ashin Gambira was a key organizer in the 2007 Saffron Revolution in Burma, in which thousands of Buddhist monks led protests against the military government. The old military regime arrested him for treason and sentenced him to prison for 68 years. He spent five years in prison, during which time he led hunger strikes and was reportedly tortured. Ashin Gambira was released in the January 13, 2012 prisoner amnesty.
The January prisoner release was seen by the international community as a huge step forward for reforms in Burma; however, the released prisoners are not entirely free. The bogus laws used to detain political prisoners remain on the books, and prisoners’ sentences were merely suspended and not commuted: if re-arrested they could still be forced to serve the remainders of their sentences.
Since his release, Ashin Gambira has been an outspoken critic of the new government. He has called for the government to apologize for abusing monks during the Saffron Revolution, and has said that reform in Burma is “fake” and that the government continues to violate human rights.
Ashin Gambira visited three of the 60 monasteries that had been raided and shut down by the government during the Saffron Revolution, and has been living in Maggin Monastery, where he previously ran an AIDS hospice.
In the middle of the night on February 10, in a move that echoed the tactics of the old military regime, plainclothes police abducted Ashin Gambira from Maggin Monastery. He was detained and interrogated for several hours and then released. Yesterday state media announced the charges against him.
The arrest of an outspoken dissident is reminiscent of the ways of the old military regime, and it is certainly a sign that change in Burma is neither as permanent nor as pervasive as the government has been leading the international community to believe. Ashin Gambira’s arrest is also a warning from the government to other dissidents.
The charges against Ashin Gambira are a reminder that the international community must continue to closely monitor the situation in Burma, and that the struggle for democracy in Burma is not nearly over. Progress should be rewarded, but setbacks like this should be reprimanded.
PHR calls for the government of Burma to drop the charges against Ashin Gambira, and to respect the freedom of speech of dissidents and all Burmese people.
PHR also calls on the international community to maintain pressure on the Burmese government, and to continue to push for lasting and genuine reforms.