MANDALAY— U Gambira, the former monk who was at the forefront of the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007, was denied bail today in the first hearing of his trial at Mahar Aung Mya Township Court in Mandalay. U Gambira had been arrested at his hotel room in Mandalay on 19 January and accused of entering Burma illegally from Thailand.
The trial has brought further attention to the issue of the 84 political prisoners who remain behind bars in Burma, a figure provided by the Assistance Association for the Protection of Political Prisoners— Burma (AAPP-B). Over four hundred people are currently on trial for political actions despite Burma holding its first elections in November. The poll elevated dozens of former political prisoners to parliament as the National League for Democracy won in a landslide.
U Gambira, 36, crossed from Thailand to the Shan State town of Tachileik on 15 January with his wife, Marie Siochana. According to her, they crossed the border through the official checkpoint and did not have any trouble with the immigration authorities. After that they took a flight from Tachileik to Heho airport, going through two immigration checkpoints in the airports without being questioned.
According to Ms Siochana, the police started to follow them when they arrived in U Gambira’s hometown, Meiktila, one day after crossing the border. U Gambira was then arrested on the night of 19 January in Mandalay.
“This is a restriction of citizens’ rights. Citizens have the right to go wherever they feel liking going. If he deserves to be arrested, he should have been arrested in Tachileik, at the beginning. But they didn’t do it,” U Gambira’s lawyer, Robert San Aung, told DVB after yesterday’s hearing. “My client didn’t break the law,” he added.
Robert San Aung is a prominent human rights lawyer who like his client has been a political prisoner on several occasions. The pair shared a cell on one occasion.
U Gambira, also known as Nyi Nyi Lwin, rose to prominence in 2007 when as a Buddhist monk he led a wave of protests against the then military junta. At the peak of the rallies tens of thousands took the streets of Burma’s main cities. The images of those peaceful protests were published in media throughout the world. A brutal repression ensued, putting an end to the protests and leaving dozens of protestors dead.
Alongside many other monks, U Gambira was disrobed and sentenced to 68 years in prison. In jail, U Gambira suffered severe forms of torture, including beatings, prolonged periods of solitary confinement and even chemical torture. He was released in 2012 under a general amnesty granted by President Thein Sein.
As a result of the mistreatment received in prison, U Gambira now suffers from a severe mental illness for which he needs to keep a strict regime of medication. He had travelled to Thailand In late 2013 to get treatment. According to a document written by his Thailand-based psychiatrist, which was used by the lawyer in the court and to which DVB has had access, his diagnosis is “organic brain syndrome” coupled with “post-traumatic stress disorder.”
During the first hearing, Robert San Aung attempted to get bail for his client on these health grounds, as there is no proper psychiatric healthcare in prison, but the request was refused by the judge. “He is not well, so let him go freely. Jail is very bad for his mental state. He always forgets to take his medicines, so we worry about his mental health,” Ma Lwin, U Gambira’s sister, said to DVB after the hearing.
Robert San Aung believes that the accusation is “politically motivated.” In declarations to DVB, the lawyer claimed that “the judge is not fully independent, because even in the trial proceeding there was a call from regional authorities.” Nevertheless, Robert San Aung expressed his hope in the incoming government. “After the NLD forms a government, they will release him,” he said.
The next hearing is scheduled for 10 February at Mahar Aung Mya Township Court. Meanwhile, U Gambira is kept behind bars in Mandalay’s Oboe Prison.