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Influential monk Ashin Gambira is among a group of political prisoners in the remote Kale jail in northern Burma who began a hunger strike last week, only days after a similar protest in Rangoon’s Insein prison ended.
Four inmates there, including Ashin Gambira and 1990 MP-elect Nyi Pu, had addressed a letter earlier this month to Burma’s home affairs minister complaining that they were being denied adequate healthcare, food and the freedom to communicate with their families.
Khin Thu Htay, the sister of the monk, who is serving a 63-year sentence for his pivotal role in the September 2007 uprising, visited the prison over the weekend. She said that the lack of any response to the letter prompted inmates to begin the hunger strike on Friday.
“I inquired with guards at the prison’s gate if the situation has been solved and they said not yet,” said Khin Thu Htay. “Just as I was talking to them, a local police official and a Special Branch official arrived and apparently they were there to collect information about the hunger strike.
“[Ashin Gambira] said all political prisoners would stage a hunger strike together – so I know it wasn’t only him.”
Nearly 30 political prisoners in the notorious Insein prison in Rangoon joined a hunger strike last week, also in protest at conditions there, while reports are circulating today that inmates in Hkamti prison in far northern Burma are also refusing food.
The Insein strike began on 17 May, the day after Burmese President Thein Sein announced a controversial amnesty that saw only 50 political prisoners among nearly 17,000 inmates released in a countrywide commutation.
At least seven of the Insein protesters were placed in solitary confinement for several days before eventually returning to their cells on 26 May.
Ashin Gambira is no stranger to prison protests, which are often met with hefty punishment: previous demands he made for former junta chief Than Shwe to visit him in prison and begin dialogue were quickly dealt with by authorities, who filled his mouth with a cloth, taped him up and repeatedly beat him.
Thein Sein and the UN Human Rights Commission were among the would-be recipients of the letter from Kale jail, which includes requests for prisoners to be allowed reading books, radio and satellite television.
Burma is estimated to have around 200,000 prisoners in 43 jails across the country. Around 2,100 of its prison population are so-called political prisoners, a group that includes monks, journalists, lawyers and doctors. Kale prison lies close to Burma’s border with India, around 680 miles north of Rangoon, and houses more than 40 political prisoners.