A leading activist and former monk in Burma was freed on bail Monday after spending more than a week in detention, where authorities questioned him about his involvement with a number of monasteries they believed to be engaged in dissident activities.
Gambira, whose lay name is Nyi Nyi Lwin, told RFA’s Burmese service that he was set free from a court in Thanlyin—a port city in central Burma—after being transferred from Insein Prison in nearby Rangoon where he had been held since Dec. 1.
“They let me post bail and then released me,” Gambira said in a telephone interview.
“I had to sign twice on bail and once at the Thanlyin court. It was written on the bail bond that I was released because of ‘health reasons.’”
The outspoken 33-year-old, who was previously jailed for his role in organizing the 2007 monk-led Saffron Revolution popular uprising and released in an amnesty in January, described his state as “not very healthy” upon his release.
His brother Aung Kyaw Kyaw said he had also been suffering acute headaches.
Gambira said that he was taken on Dec. 1 by police who wore “muftis,” or civilian clothing, while traveling to Rangoon to purchase medication and to meet with foreign diplomats.
“They told me that they wanted to ask me about some monasteries—Maggin Monastery, Thathana Goneyi Monastery, Thathana Theipan, and the Aung Bawdi chapel,” he said.
Aung Kyaw Kyaw had said earlier that Gambira was being held for “house trespassing, “damaging the dignity of the nation,” and “house-breaking” after he removed the locks from several monasteries in February.
Authorities had closed the buildings as they believed the resident monks were participating in dissident activities.
“I told them that I had already resolved this issue on Feb. 10 with the State Sangha Maha Nayaka,” the government-appointed body that regulates the country's Buddhist clergy, Gambira said.
“I was threatened twice and arrested by those police officers. But before they locked me up, two police officials asked me write a deposition about the Aung Bawdi chapel.”
Gambira’s arrest drew concern from a number of human rights organizations, as well as from the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, which urged the Burmese government to follow due process of law in trying the former monk.
Gambira had been scheduled to stand trial on Dec. 14.
Support for victims
When asked why he believed he had been held, Gambira said that authorities had likely wanted to keep him from participating in a support campaign for the victims of a police crackdown on protesters against a China-backed copper mine involved in a land dispute in northwestern Burma.
The predawn raid on Nov. 29 against monks and villagers who had set up a protest camp outside of the mine site in the Letpadaung hills in Sagaing division left at least 99 monks and 11 others injured, according to Religious Affairs Minister Myint Maung, who apologized to senior Buddhist monks on Monday amid efforts to dampen public anger over the crackdown.
Authorities have denied reports that chemicals were used in the raid, which also saw dozens detained.
“Although they told me those were the reasons for my arrest, I think that they were worried that I would participate in and organize protests against the brutal crackdown at the Mt. Letpadaung copper mine because about 60 monks were injured. I heard that some monks and people died,” Gambira said.
“Actually, I had already arranged something about this. I held a meeting with some monks in Mandalay on Nov. 29 and suggested political actions according to the rules for monks. Then I went to Rangoon. They might have thought that I was leading the monks to protest against the crackdown.”
Gambira noted that during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, “monks across the country” held peaceful protests against the government before the movement was crushed by the country's then military leaders.
“At that time, [monks protested even though] only two monks had been beaten,” he said.
“At the Letpadaung copper mine crackdown, more than 60 monks and other people were injured. So I don’t think I need to explain [why authorities were concerned.]”
Protests related to the crackdown have been ongoing with some 100 activists—mostly members of the Generation Wave pro-democracy youth movement—gathering in Rangoon on Monday to call on the government to release all detainees connected to protests against the mining project.
Gambira has been arrested three times since he was granted a release in the January amnesty, but continues to speak out about human rights violations in Burma. Because of his activism, authorities have refused to grant the monk a national identity card or passport.
Gambira was reportedly tortured during a previous detention and claims to have been strapped to a chair for weeks at a time, force-fed and brutally beaten.
According to the Irrawaddy online newspaper, those freed in amnesties since 2011 have been granted conditional release under Section 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
Any prisoner who is subsequently deemed by the authorities to have breached these terms can be returned to prison to serve the remainder of their original sentence.
Gambira said that following his release he plans to assist monks, nuns, and novices who have spent time in prison return to their monasteries and reassimilate into Buddhist life after being forced to live as laymen and laywomen while incarcerated.
He said he also plans to help resolve ethnic conflict between the Buddhist and Muslim communities of western Burma’s Rakhine state.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.