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With Myanmar Elections on Horizon, Protest Leader Still Skeptical

In August 2007, students and opposition activists took to the streets of Myanmar, also known as Burma, to protest rising fuel and food prices.

In the weeks that followed, thousands of monks joined the massive grassroots uprising that became known as the Saffron Revolution.

While the country's political opening has since been hailed for loosening the military's tight grip on power, some critics, including U Gambira, one of the monks who became a public face of the movement, says little has changed.

Now based in northern Thailand, Gambira, who says he was forced to leave the monkhood in 2012, spends his time teaching fellow migrants. Ever the political activist, though, the former monk stays in touch with colleagues across the border where citizens are preparing for 2015 elections.

That upcoming contest, he says, won't be the product of genuine reforms.

“Many countries, including the U.S. and the EU (sic), have given the time for the Burmese government to reform the country, [but] ... they haven’t done any real reform yet," he said. "It’s all lies. The junta says they will reform, [but] just to protect their own businesses and control.”

Since the country's 2010 election, Myanmar officials have established a national human rights coalition, passed less restrictive labor and media laws, and embarked on a series of reforms targeting reconciliation, partial economic liberalization and political democracy.

Those efforts have been rewarded. The United States announced it would begin easing travel and financial sanctions in 2011, and later in 2012 announced a "targeted easing" of the ban on U.S. financial services and investment in the country. In April of 2013 the European Union lifted the last of its travel, financial and individual sanctions in response to Yangon's reform program.

In 2014, Myanmar also assumed chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The government has also released more than 1,300 political prisoners since reforms began — most notably releasing pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. But rights groups say the government's efforts will be incomplete if it does not amend or remove oppressive laws that have allowed the government to continue detaining its critics.

Rights groups estimate around 40 political prisoners are still in prison in Myanmar, with roughly another 200 people awaiting trial, including many who were recently charged with violating a new protest law.

Gambia himself spent four years in prison under brutal conditions — he was originally sentenced to 68 years for involvement in the 2007 uprising — only to be freed as part of a mass pardon just prior to U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2012 visit.

He has since been re-arrested three times, most recently for taking part in a Mandalay copper mine protest.

“I was forced to disrobe. I am not really happy and I didn’t want to leave the monkhood, but the army put a lot of pressure on me," he said. "They searched every monastery that I went to and told head abbots to not allow me to stay.”

The blacklisting forced Gambira to depart Myanmar for Thailand, where he has joined critics who say Yangon policies are worsening religious and ethnic divisions, and undermining the reforms that have drawn praise abroad.

Critics point to recent government investigations of journalists and publications in particular.

The ruling party and military have also rejected an opposition move to repeal a constitutional amendment that bars anyone from becoming president if they have a spouse or children who are foreign nationals. The measure is widely believed to be directed at Aung San Suu Kyi, whose sons have British and American citizenship.

For Myanmar, the coming year will test whether critics like Gambira have reason for pessimism, or whether authorities can conduct a free and fair election without turmoil in the streets.