Myanmar's Exiled Rebel Monk Reckons He's Still Dangerous
Ashin Gambira led the 2007 Saffron Revolution. I spoke to him about torture, exile and how ethnic violence serves Myanmar's Junta.
In 2007 the world watched as masses gathered amid suddenly inflated fuel prices in Myanmar (formerly Burma) to protest against the ruling military dictatorship. The protestors were joined by thousands of Buddhist monks, and became known as the Saffron Revolution, in reference to the colour of their robes.
The peaceful gathering of holy men in a country that had largely isolated itself from the rest of the world began as something inspirational, giving hope for change in one of the world's dictatorships. Then the world watched in horror as the Junta moved in and violently cracked down on the protests, killing a still unknown number of people and injuring countless others. It was far from the first time this kind of force and violence was used by the Burmese Government to suppress dissent, but it was the first time the world was able to witness it unfold in real time.
Ashin Gambira led one of the most prominent organisations in the protests, the All Burma Monks' Alliance. After the crackdown began Gambira spent much of his time in hiding, publishing scathing letters against the Burmese Government in major western news publications. Before long he was arrested and eventually sentenced to 68 years in prison for his role in the protests. He was released early in 2012 following international pressure, only to be harassed, rearrested and released several more times before finally fleeing the country in 2013. During his imprisonment Gambira was tortured severely, sustained significant head injuries, and had his health deteriorate hugely.
The path that took Gambira to become a monk is an unusual one. As a child Gambira ran away from his family and was taken by the Burmese Army and forced to serve as a child soldier. His family found him while he was serving in the army and were able to enrol him into a local monastery to avoid arrest or redrafting. It was this decision that may have largely laid the course for Gambira to find himself 14 years later as a young man of 28 at the helm of one of the most important protests movements in the country, and against the Junta he had nearly lost his youth to.
The movement was in large part an organic uprising, but also one of meticulous planning underground. "Since 2004 we had been organising All Burma Monks Alliance," Gambira tells me. "For 20 years people weren't happy with prices going up. The fuel and commodity prices were very high and income was very low. The 88 Generation and other organisations found it difficult to protest, and this became a problem, so all the monks came together to also protest," he says, referencing the movement named after the country's previous mass protest two decades prior.
For his role in organising the protests the Junta came down hard on Gambira, sentencing him to 68 years in prison. While monks are especially respected in Burmese society, Gambira's captors were especially cruel. "In prison they give three kinds of torture – Physical torture, psychological torture, and then medical torture where they gave injections," he says. "They tried to disturb my sleep constantly. They used to put sand in with my rice. But I received food from my family so I didn't have to eat that. They used loud noises to frighten me. And they beat me." As reported by Amnesty International, Gambira was tied to a chair with a cloth over his head and then beaten over the head with wooden batons. In the same period he was left handcuffed to a chair for extended periods of time so long that the metal began to tear away at the flesh of his wrists. As a result Gambira had to relearn to use his hands as he did before he was in prison.
The injections he describes seem equally sadistic, "The prison doctor would give me an injection and then I would start shaking. My body and my legs would shake, and then I started screaming. It went on like this for three hours. After those three hours the prison doctor came to my cell again and the guards held my legs and arms down, then the doctor injected me again. The shaking became less severe each time they did it." To this day Gambira says he does not know what the injection was they forced into his body.
Gambira was released early on the 13th of January 2012, as part of a mass pardon after international outcry and pressure seemed to force the junta's hand. He was then arrested and rereleased several more times before fleeing for Thailand in March of 2013.
Since leaving Myanmar the violence between Buddhists and Muslims seems to have left an impression on Gambira, and wary always of the Junta he believes they played a major role in the riots along with the rise of Buddhist Nationalism so often associated with them. "If there is no peace it is difficult to have a true democracy," he says. "This is how the generals keep control. They are not interested in political solutions. The government creates all of this behind the scenes. In Meiktila [where the 2013 riots started] – it wasn't the locals who were fighting and rioting, but people from somewhere else."
In particular he blames Wirathu – known as the "Bhuddist Bin Laden" in Myanmar he is often credited for inflaming tensions between Buddhists and Muslims by spreading hate speech and rumours against Muslims. "He gave a speech about the Kalar [a derogatory slur for Muslims and Rohingya] shortly before the violence started," says Gambira.
Gambira recalls two occasions where he had met Wirathu. "We met in the jail – Wirathu was also in prison in Mandalay. I was alone in the prison and he sent me a letter asking me about my condition. When I was released, I met him one more time and told him to not create discord between Muslims and Buddhists. It gives Buddhists bad reputation."
Wirathu's reaction, according to Gambira, was to admit to an unsettling relationship with government officials. "Before I met Wirathu, he met with Aung Thaung, a close advisor of General Than Shwe [The former dictator General of Myanmar still believed to be in power behind scenes]. When Wirathu met with me he said he wouldn't create these problems in the future, but then he said he can't ignore Aung Thaung. Wirathu was worried also that he would go to jail again if he disobeyed orders from Aung Thaung. That is the reason Wirathu does this [whips up ethnic tension]."
If Gambira's memory is accurate, this appears to be the "Bhuddist Bin Laden" admitting that he is under pressure from a government official to create disturbances between Bhuddists and Muslims. Speculation about the relationship between to two is widespread, particularly after Wirathu and Aung Thaung met in April 2012, shortly before the riots in Rakhine. But on contacting Wirathu about Gambira's claim, he flatly denied that the two had even met.
Last month the United States announced that they had issued sanctions against Aung Thaung. The US Treasury Office of Foreign Asset control issued a statement saying, "By intentionally undermining the positive political and economic transition in Burma, Aung Thaung is perpetuating violence, oppression, and corruption."
In regards to the on going violence in the country's western Rakhine State, where riots between Muslim Rohingya and Buddhists Rakhine resulted in an unknown number of dead and 140,000 displaced indefinitely into squalid camps, Gambira sees the same hand behind the violence. "Yes. It's about the generals' power," he says. "In Rakhine there is a lot of natural gas and they want to keep control of it. The issue that started the violence was very small, but they turned it into a war. They could have just arrested the men who raped the girl [Ma Thida Htwe, whose rape and murder supposedly by three Muslims was the starting point of the mass riots in 2012.]." While the authorities did in fact arrest men believed to be responsible for the murder of Ma Thida Htwe, they have also been widely accused of allowing, agitating, and in some cases participating in the violence against the Rohingya.
The violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the country shows no signs of relenting, with riots occurring again this past summer in Mandalay. When asked if there was hope for reconciliation he answers with both commitment and awareness to the challenges. "Yes [there can be reconciliation], but there is a problem because people are uneducated they cannot think. People always listen to their leaders. We are trying to form an organisation to make reconciliation in Burma with the leaders from all religions to end the violence. There are groups, though, that work against this, like anti-Muslim groups, such as the Ma Ba Tha. "
Gambira is the kind of rebel drawn by the heart, and the kind who has refused to be broken when beaten, nor to submit in duress. It's in large part for this reason, this unwavering resilience to seek justice for all of Myanmar, that the Junta feared him so much. According to Gambira, this is why the government continues to fear his return to Myanmar. "They are afraid; they know people still support me," he says. "The government in Burma is still waiting for me. Police patrols go past my home every 15 minutes. They wait at the tea houses I used to go to, to see if I will come back." Should Gambira manage to return, the people of Myanmar would be grateful for it.
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