BANGKOK—One of the most prominent leaders of Burma's monk-led protest movement is suffering from worsening health in jail, two years after the peaceful "Saffron Revolution" was suppressed in a military crackdown by the military government, his family said.
U Gambira, 30, was only 28 during the protests in September 2007 which began with marches to protest against rises in government-approved fuel prices.
He was arrested and tried in Kyimyindine court in Rangoon's Insein prison for leading the 2007 Saffron Revolution.
Former child soldier U Gambira, who is serving a 12-year sentence for "insulting religion" and "crimes against the peace," has stuck to his monk's vows while in Rangoon's Kalay Prison, where he was transferred last year.
His relatives said he had started suffering violent headaches after being given milk to drink ahead of his trial.
"When they brought him out to court and after he drank the milk he immediately started getting sick and vomited," a male relative of U Gambira's said.
"From that moment, his health started to fail. He would have headaches and have aches in his body ... and would not be able to think properly," he said.
"He was admitted to the prison hospital, and he was kept under an intense spotlight all night at the prison hospital and interrogated."
Taken from hiding
U Gambira—who became a novice monk at 12 and led the 2007 uprising—was arrested at a hiding place in Kyaukse, central Burma, in early November 2007, weeks after a violent crackdown on protesters left dozens dead and thousands in custody.
One of U Gambira’s close associates, Ashin Panna Siri, escaped from a Burmese prison camp and fled to India.
He described torture and backbreaking hard labor in custody.
Even monks handed only brief sentences for their roles in the 2007 uprising were sent to hard labor camps, a punishment usually reserved for those handed longer terms, he said.
U Gambira's sister, Ma Lwin Lwin, has now fled Burma for fear of further reprisals against a family with a long history of political dissent and four family members currently in jail.
"Of course I am concerned that U Gambira is having those headaches and cannot think properly," she said.
"I am worried. In the past I would cry when I have to talk about him."
"After our father had served three years in jail and when U Gambira was in the fifth standard, he had no inclination to continue at school and became despondent and joined the army," she recalled.
"He was about 10 years old."
Bought out of the military after his family tracked him down two years later, U Gambira later became a Buddhist monk, and is still trying to keep his vows in spite of prison life, he relatives said.
Ko Lu Maw Naing, a member of the Young Monks' Association of Central Burma, said that U Gambira's career as an opposition activist began in 2006, when he started to organize a number of monks' associations into a union in five townships in central Burma.
"He tried to organize the monks, and also contacted the politicians. He met with several of the political groups," he said. "It was in Ahlone, Sangyaung, Hlegu, Insein, and Htaukkyant [townships]."
"From these townships he selected representatives and formed the core of the monks’ union."
In February 2007, U Gambira began organizing monks to refuse to provide religious services to members of the military and their families.
"The monks’ union had actually issued a statement in 2006, when former 1988 student activist Min Ko Naing was arrested, demanding the release of [opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi] and Min Ko Naing and the start of national reconciliation," Ko Lu Maw Naing said.
"And that if those demands were not met, the monks would again start to refuse to provide religious services for the military and their families. At that time, the statement mention that this ultimatum would be carried out all across the country by all of the Burmese Buddhist monks," he added.
U Gambira was asked to leave his Buddhist monastery following that incident. He continued his activities from privately rented accommodation, his sister said.
"He rented a house and stayed with us," she said.
"We attended school, and U Gambira involved himself with those activities. The place was in remote ShwePyiTha district. We didn't have electricity. I told him that this wasn't right, but he was insistent."
Original reporting in Burmese by Khin May Zaw. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.