Activist arrest shows limits to reforms

Nyi Nyi Lwin or Gambira. Source: Wikimedia


A Myanmar court has announced new charges against a former monk and leader of the 2007 so-called “Saffron Revolution” against the junta, accusing him of trespass and “mischief” committed four years ago.

Nyi Nyi Lwin, commonly known as Gambira, was detained in January for illegally crossing the Thai border.

The former monk’s Australian partner, Marie Siochana, maintains he was carrying valid documents proving his claim to Myanmar citizenship and had crossed legally into the country. Nyi Nyi Lwin is based in Thailand’s Chiang Mai but has travelled to Myanmar several times without incident.

The new charges relate to the reopening of monasteries that were closed after the monks’ uprising. The alleged violations took place in 2012, after Gambira’s release from prison for his involvement in the demonstrations.

“Gambira forced opened the gates of three monasteries in Yangon, which were sealed off by the military in the crackdown on the protests, since the activist monks couldn’t find anywhere to live after their release in the amnesty in 2012,” said Gambira’s advocate Robert San Aung, Myanmar’s most prominent rights lawyer.

The charges were laid days before he was about to be released from prison, where he has been serving time for allegedly crossing the Thai-Burma border without a visa.

He has been moved to Yangon’s infamous Insein prison from Mandalay to face the new charges.

The fact that a high-profile political prisoner is moved around the country and charged for seemingly minor offences committed years ago shows democratic reforms in Myanmar under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership are limited, as many junta-era institutions and laws remain unchanged.

“He was due to be freed on July 1, but the authorities seem afraid of him and don’t want to let him out,” said San Aung.

The government cracked down on the 2007 demonstrations, firing on demonstrators. At least 31 people were butchered by the authorities and thousands arrested, according to the United Nations. It was confusingly called the “saffron” revolution although Burmese monks wear burgundy robes, unlike their Thai counterparts.

Gambira was freed from prison during a 2012 general amnesty, a year after the junta handed power to a quasi-civilian government.

Since 2012, he has divided his time between Myanmar and Thailand, but the Burmese authorities have re-arrested him on several occasions in what human-rights groups have called harassment for his criticism of the previous military-backed regime.

“It just shows things still remain as bad as they were under the former regime,” analyst Yan Myo Thein. “They always find some pretext whenever they don’t want to free a prominent politician or an activist.”