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February 09, 2012

Burma Authorities Release Dissident Monk

Authorities in Burma briefly detained a prominent dissident monk Friday, less than a month after he was released from jail along with dozens of other political prisoners.  A rights group monitoring the situation said U Gambira’s detention appeared to be a warning for the former prisoners not to get involved in politics.  

Witnesses say several Burmese officials  took U Gambira from a monastery in Rangoon before dawn. A sister of the monk told VOA's Burmese service several hours later that her brother had been released unharmed at a Rangoon monastery.

She said she had not seen her brother since his release and did not know why he was arrested.

The religious affairs and special branch police gave little information about the apprehension, saying only that the 31-year-old monk was wanted for questioning.

Bo Kyi is founder of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPB), a Thailand-based monitoring group.  He says authorities have no legal reason to detain U Gambira, whom he referred to using the honorific “Shin,” given to monks.

“That should not be because Shin Gambira did not do anything as far as we know," said Bo Kyi. "So, therefore there is no reason to be taken…taking him to the questions.”

Since his release in January, U Gambira has spoken out against the military-backed civilian government and expressed doubts that it is becoming a real democracy.

Reports say he was also attempting to reopen monasteries that authorities closed after the 2007 democracy protests known as the Saffron Revolution, because of the color of robes worn by monks.

U Gambira and other monks led the protests but the military violently ended the movement and jailed him and hundreds of others.  

U Gambira was sentenced to more than 60 years in prison.

Most political prisoners in recent months were released under general amnesties, part of the civilian-led government’s reform efforts.

But their freedom is conditional.  If convicted of a crime, their previous sentence can be reinstated, forcing them to serve out the remaining time.

Bo Kyi says U Gambira’s detention is likely meant as a warning to other recently released political dissidents.

“If the Burmese government really wants national reconciliation, and then really wants the people to trust them, they need to recognize the existence of political prisoners and release them as soon as possible unconditionally," said Bo Kyi. "That is the first step they need to do.  Otherwise it is really difficult to get like the trust by the people, both domestic and international.”

The release of all political prisoners is a key demand by western nations for lifting economic sanctions against Burma.

Burmese authorities refuse to officially recognize political prisoners and say all prisoners of conscience have been released.

The AAPB estimates there are more than 800 still locked up for opposing military rule while other estimates put the figure at around 300.

A civilian-led government last year replaced decades of military rule and began implementing political and economic reforms.

But observers debate whether the military is still in charge, and if reforms are genuine or designed to get sanctions and Burma's pariah status lifted.