The wife of a former monk and prominent leader of the 2007 Saffron Revolution was denied permission to visit her jailed husband yesterday.
Marie Siochana told The Myanmar Times that authorities barred her entry from the prison because she is a foreign citizen. Myanmar authorities said this is standard procedure until the backing of the relevant embassy is secured.
Her husband, U Gambira, was arrested at a hotel in Mandalay around midnight on January 19. He has been denied bail and is being held in Mandalay’s Oboe prison on immigration-related charges.
U Gambira, who is no longer a monk and resides in Thailand, entered Myanmar with Ms Siochana at the Thai border crossing of Mae Sai-Tachileik on January 16. Police allege that he did not enter the country legally, and have charged him under Section 13(a) of the colonial-era Burma Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act of 1947.
International rights groups suspect the charge is a form of politically motivated harassment and called for the activist to be immediately and unconditionally released. UK-based rights group Amnesty International called the charges against U Gambira “contrived, arbitrary and politically motivated”. The group also took aim at the broader pattern of suppression of activists in Myanmar, which they say runs at odds with the country’s human rights commitments.
“The Myanmar authorities continue to arrest and imprison activists and human rights defenders on politically motivated charges, part of an ongoing clampdown on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly which are enshrined in Articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” read the Amnesty statement released on January 20.
The call for U Gambira’s release was echoed by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), which said the arrest comes at a “pivotal time” and is “extremely concerning and risks sacrificing any potential positive legacy of the government of President Thein Sein”.
“This arrest seems to be on trumped-up charges and is most likely politically motivated. Gambira has sacrificed a great deal to support the rights of the Myanmar people to fight for democracy and should be treated accordingly – not hounded and thrown in jail,” said Son Chhay, a Cambodian member of parliament and vice chair of the APHR.
Son Chhay said that the arrest calls into question the sincerity of Myanmar’s reform efforts.
“The outgoing military-backed government is not sending the signal that it is ready to work with other stakeholders to see Myanmar grow into an open society that upholds international human rights norms, and this has concerning undertones for the tenure of the next government,” he said.
U Gambira’s arrest in Mandalay came just one day after a US State Department envoy called on President U Thein Sein to release all political prisoners. The senior-level representative urged the president to fulfill his 2013 pledge before he leaves office at the end of March as a sign of his commitment to the reform process.
U Gambira was previously jailed and sentenced to 68 years in prison relating to his role leading pro-democracy demonstrations in 2007. He was released in a presidential amnesty in January 2012 after serving four years and two months.
He suffers from major mental health issues, including extreme post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his earlier imprisonment when he was tortured. He was also diagnosed as schizophrenic in late 2015. Ms Siochana said he is currently medicated and must follow a strict regimen of prescribed drugs. She sent medications to the jail, with instructions, but estimates less than one month’s supply is left.
A trauma specialist in Thailand who has treated U Gambira raised concerns over the possible trigger effects the reimprisonment will cause.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners told The Myanmar Times that while immigration-related charges haven’t been used much in recent years in political cases, there is some precedent for using them.
“The charge under the The Myanmar Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act is not so commonly used for political reasons but has been used, particularly before 2011, when people would illegally cross the border to coordinate with CBOs and disseminate information to the outside world,” the Thailand-based group said.
The police report said that during interrogation U Gambira confessed to having made several unofficial border crossings since he left Myanmar to seek medical treatment in Thailand in November 2013. However, it did not appear these were the subject of the charges against him.
“It reeks of retro-vengeance and neo-paranoia on the part of the authorities to target someone they have already tortured and apparently want to ensure will never pose a threat to the military’s interests again,” said David Mathieson, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in Myanmar. “If this is the new post-election Burma, it is looking disturbingly like the Burma of nine years ago that U Gambira was trying to peacefully change.”