Burmese former monk Gambira arrested while preparing to travel to Australia
Story by Lindsay Murdoch – The Age newspaper
January 21, 2016
Bangkok: Myanmar authorities have arrested and jailed a former monk and leader of a 2007 uprising who returned to the country from Thailand to apply for a passport so he could travel to Australia.
Authorities have refused bail for Nyi Nyi Lwin, known as Gambira, despite that he is suffering severe health problems after spending years in Myanmar’s jails where he was beaten, chained to a floor and injected with unknown substances that induced unbearable pain and psychotic episodes.
Known as a leader of the Saffron Revolution, Gambira has been one of the few voices to speak out against the persecution of minority Rohingya Muslims in the majority Buddhist country.
“Please pray for him,” Gambira’s Australian wife, Marie Siochana, who married him after a whirlwind romance in 2012, pleaded on Facebook.
Authorities in Mandalay, the country’s second largest city, claim they arrested Gambira for illegally crossing the border from Thailand, where has lived on and off for several years. But Ms Siochana said she travelled with her husband through proper immigration channels in both Thailand and Myanmar last week without problems.
She said more than 20 plain-clothes police entered the couple’s hotel room with at least three filming them as they sat semi-naked on the bed, before they took him to a police station.
Ms Siochana, who insisted on going with him but wasn’t allowed in, spent hours waiting outside while her husband was interrogated.
“He is not involved in political activities and just wants a normal life,” she said.
Ms Siochana has two children in Australia. She said Gambira needs a passport so he can apply for a tourist visa to travel to Australia, where they hope to eventually settle, and be able to travel to other countries.
She said Gambira, who underwent brain surgery last year, needs medication which is not available in jail.
The arrest has highlighted the refusal of Myanmar’s military rulers to release hundreds of political prisoners awaiting trial on politically motivated charges, despite repeated promises made three years ago to do so.
US Assistant Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week called on the military to release the prisoners before a new government led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is sworn into office early in February.
Human Rights advocates say there are an estimated 128 people who have been convicted and are serving time for political offences in the country also known as Burma.
Another 472 detainees are facing apparently politically motivated charges, including 23 arrested since elections on November 8 that swept Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy into power.
Ms Siochana began campaigning for Gambira in 2011 as he faced continued harassment in Myanmar where he has fought for labour rights, stood up for the poor whose land was taken away from them and clashed with pro-government elements in the powerful Buddhist clergy. They married after he had quit as a monk.
Gambira became one of Myanmar’s best known political prisoners after he was sentenced to 63 years jail for leading led anti-government protests in 2007 that became known as the Saffron Revolution. Then troops opened fire on protesters, killing scores.
Gambira was released in 2012 as the military promised to end its 50 years of repressive rule but was jailed again after trying to re-open a monastery that had been sealed, and has suffered continuing harassment, supporters say.
Gambira’s struggle against repression was acknowledged in late 2012 when he was among a select number of guests invited to hear US President Barack Obama speak at Rangoon University.
Ms Siochana said, for whatever reason, Myanmar authorities have created a “horrible” situation for Gambira and his family.
“I love Gambira dearly and he loves me,” she said.
“He is a beautiful, kind and loving person. He makes me laugh constantly and is child-like and humble.”