Arrested for Opening Up Monasteries?

December 6, 2012

Plus ça change (plus c’est la même chose).  For those who were lulled into believing that the government of Myanmar is new and improved, and that reforms are taking place with unsurpassed speed, the rearrest of former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience U Gambira is a much-needed wake-up call.  The human rights situation in that country is still precarious, and we need to be vigilant lest they slip back into their old ways.

Ashin Gambira (aka Nyi Nyi Lwin) was arrested on December 1, 2012 – his third arrest since his ”release” in January.  Under the general prisoner amnesty, prisoners’ sentences were merely suspended, rather than expunged. That means the time that remained on U Gambira’s original sentence of 63 years when he was released in January would be added back if he is convicted of these new charges.

Although Myanmar on the surface is changing, the laws that criminalize non-criminal acts are still law.  U Gambira has been charged with ”house-trespass” (Penal Code section 448), ”mischief” (Penal Code section 427) and ”lurking house-trespass or house-breaking having made preparation for causing hurt to any person” (Penal Code section 454).  In January, after his release, he reportedly went back to three monasteries, which the government had shut down, and broke the padlocks and led the monks back to their homes.

Of course, all of this happened almost a year ago, and U Gambira has not been in hiding.  So why arrest him now?  Why didn’t the authorities arrest him in January?  Or February?  The answer likely lies in an incident that happened late last week – a peaceful protest of demonstrators and monks at the Lapadaung Taung Copper Mine that turned ugly when the police – in a throwback to not-so-distant times – cracked down on the protesters, injuring scores of villagers.  Many people are suspicious that the authorities arrested U Gambira to prevent the possibility of him leading an even larger demonstration.

The police issued an apology.  The government set up a commission to investigate the brutal crackdown.  But the apology and the investigative commission haven’t changed U Gambira’s predicament.  A few weeks ago, U Gambira sat in the front row as President Obama spoke to a packed audience about reforms in Myanmar. Today U Gabira remains under arrest, seemingly for opening up doors to monasteries.  Plus ça change (plus c’est la même chose).

Claudia Vandermade, Amnesty International USA Southeast Asia Coordinator, contributed to this post.