‘He Did What Had To Be Done’

The mother of an activist monk in Burma talks about her family's sacrifices.

2009-10-06
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U Gambira's family, including (L to R) his elder sister, mother Daw Yay, elder brother Aung Kyaw Kyaw, an unknown monk, and U Gambira.
Photo courtesy of Moemaka

Daw Yay, has long supported her family members’ struggles to bring democracy to military-ruled Burma. Her youngest son, U Gambira, is currently in prison for his organizing role in the monk-led Saffron democracy movement of 2007. Her eldest son, Ko Aung Kyaw Kyaw, who is a township secretary of the opposition NLD party, and younger son, Ko Aung Ko Ko Lwin, are also serving prison sentences for their roles in the democracy movement.

Daw Yay is no stranger to the tactics used by Burma’s ruling junta to silence its critics. Following their involvement in Burma’s 1988 popular uprising, Daw Yay’s husband, U Min Lwin, who led a strike in his township, and their son Ko Aung Kyaw Kyaw, served lengthy prison terms. Daw Yay believes this political heritage developed in U Gambira a deep compassion and hatred of injustice, which drove him to lead the Buddhist monk movement two years ago.

Daw Yay prays each day that her sons will eventually be included in a general amnesty extended to 7,000 prisoners ahead of planned 2010 elections. She shared her thoughts on the price she and her family have paid for their efforts to bring democratic change to Burma:

“I give as much support and provide as much as I can to ensure that my sons who are in jail can stay alive—so that they can eat well and that all their needs are taken care of. My youngest son would say that whenever he visits his brothers in jail he would only take one bag full of things but that when I go on these prison visits I carry two bags full of provisions—one full of food and the other full of clothes—for my son the monk, U Gambira. I would reply by saying that those who are in jail can eat only what we bring. My youngest son was just worried that there might not be enough left for the family. Maybe he was just testing me. I would tell him that it does not matter—we can make do with a bare minimum, but those in prison need to be fully provided for."

“It has now been twice that prisoners have been released. Maybe it was three times. [My sons] were never included in any of those amnesties. I don’t think they will be released at the moment. But I do keep on hoping—after all, I am a mother. So I have to keep myself from thinking about it, to not let the tears start. I have to pretend and be strong in front of other people. But at night I cannot fall asleep. I have to console myself with hopes that they will be released soon.”

Words of encouragement

“As a mother, I would like [U Gambira] to complete the remaining one year of his study of the Dhma-Sariya [Buddha teachings]. But because of circumstances beyond our control he is now in prison. It is not because he has done something wrong. But whatever the case may be, he raised his voice for the people. He was arrested and sentenced to prison. But my son never committed a crime. I feel that he did what had to be done. Therefore, I never tried to stop. Not at all. This is something to be proud of. In time, this will become recorded as a historical fact. Right now he is in jail.”

On building a democratic country

“Our country is a Buddhist country, which has made its people very gentle and compassionate. It would have been such a good example. It is a country that puts religion in the forefront. That is why I think that [the crackdown following the Saffron Revolution] should not have happened. If [Burma] was a democratic country and if there were demonstrations, one would have to see why these demonstrations were occurring and if the peoples’ demands cannot be met, it should be peacefully settled by telling them...when they can be met. That is all that has to be done.”

“But what has happened now is something that should not have happened. If [the SPDC] comes to terms with the American government on the sanctions business in a smooth manner diplomatically, I would really like it. At this time when they are dealing with the American government,this could lead to a less adverse effect on those organizations working for democracy. That is what I think. I would like that.”

Family jailed

“I have journeyed through the time when my husband and my son suffered terms in prison during the ‘88 uprising. That was the first time and, at that time, only two were in jail. This second time, three sons, including my son-in-law, are in jail. There are difficulties, and as a mother, I would like to visit my sons monthly. If I must really say it, I do miss and yearn for them. I don’t want them to live their lives in prison."

"I go and visit them in prison while always praying that Burma will achieve democracy and that justice will prevail as soon as possible...I cannot even miss and yearn for them peacefully. I have to wait here, I have to wait there, but I think positively and try to see that [the authorities] are actually treating our family well since Sept. 2007.”

A mother’s plea

“My youngest son, my middle son, the jewels of my heart, my sons. Whenever I see monks going around begging for food, I look to see if my son is there as well. I watch them until they are out of sight, hoping that you will be there, my son. I know it cannot be, but that is what I wish. Although you are in fact far away, in my dreams you come to me often. You would then say, ‘Madame, [monks refer to women in such a way] the food is insufficient’ and you would ask me to cook this or that kind of food and I would try my very best to cook the food you would want to eat. Without tiring or fatigue I would do this.”

“My eldest son, the younger sons and my daughters—all of the family are [in the dream]. I am so happy. ‘Here is the soup you like. Here are the beans the way you liked them cooked. Here is the kind of sticky rice you like. Here is the kind of tea you like.’ I would say, ‘Let us all offer food to my son. Prepare the table.’ But after everything has been prepared, I suddenly wake from my dreams.”

“That is the way it is, a mother who does not want her sons to be out of her sight. But now we are so far apart. When I see them in my dreams I feel so happy, but even in my dreams I do not get the opportunity to offer food to my son, the monk. I really think that my dreams are actually true.”

“When I wake up and don’t see you there, I think that you had gone to have a bath or are in the bathroom. I would then walk about the house with a flashlight looking for you and, of course, I can’t find you. When will our family ever be together freely? When will we ever meet again? When will I ever get the chance to offer you the food that I have prepared for you in our own house? Full of hope to see all of my sons, including you, my little son—I will keep waiting.”

Reported by Khin May Zaw. Translated from the Burmese by Soe Thinn. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Produced in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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