A monk imprisoned for 63 years for his pivotal role in the September 2007 uprising has welcomed the release of Aung San Suu Kyi but warned that it must not detract from the struggle to free all political prisoners.
In a letter smuggled out of the remote Kalay prison last week, U Gambira said that he was “very happy” about Suu Kyi’s release but that now “the more than 2,000 political prisoners, including myself, need to be released too”.
The 31-year-old is widely considered the leader of the uprising, which has come to be known as the Saffron Revolution on account of the thousands of saffron robe-clad monks that took to the streets more than three years ago.
Since his sentencing in 2008, U Gambira has been moved through five prisons in three different divisions around Burma and is now in Kalay, around 100 miles from the border with India.
He said in the letter, collected by a visitor and transcribed over the phone by his sister, Ma Lwin Lwin Myint, who is now in Thailand, that “torture and repression is less [bad] here in Kalay prison” than the previous places he was detained in, which included Insein prison in Rangoon. He added that while his health has improved, “my sight is bad [and] my eyes are hurting”.
Conditions inside Burma’s 44 prisons are notoriously poor, and inmates are regularly required to bribe prison doctors in order to receive treatment. Torture is widespread, particularly for political prisoners.
Previous demands U Gambira made for Senior General Than Shwe to visit him in prison and begin dialogue were met with heavy treatment by authorities, with his mouth was filled with a cloth, taped up and beaten repeatedly.
But the venerated monk made a further call last week: “I will forgive and forget the slander, the brutal torture on me and the harassment of my family, committed by the generals and the clerks. I want you all to concentrate on national reconciliation.”
Despite the reverence with which Burma holds its monastic community, monks currently account for 256 of Burma’s nearly 2,200 political prisoners. One monk, U Nanda Vathu, is serving a 71-year sentence, while 21 of those detained are serving sentences of 20 years or more.
U Gambira also said that the recent elections, which a pro-junta party won in a landslide, were “only aimed at legalising military power [and]…can only increase the problems inside our country”.