A former monk who was prominent in the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” has been arrested in a Mandalay hotel and jailed on charges of immigration offences while visiting Myanmar with his Australian wife.
U Gambira, 36, was denied bail in a court hearing yesterday on charges linked to his entry into Myanmar from Thailand on January 16 at the Mai Sai-Tachileik crossing, along with his wife Marie Siochana.
He was taken to Mandalay’s Oboe prison pending his next court hearing set for February 3. The former monk, who spent more than four years as a political prisoner following the 2007 protests, was charged under Section 13a of The Burma Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act, 1947.
“I came here officially ... I have enough documents,” he told media outside the Maha Aung Myay court, holding up his NRC identification document.
U Gambira, born Nyi Nyi Lwin, was released from prison in a presidential amnesty in January 2012, having received a 68-year jail sentence. He was a front-row guest during US President Barack Obama’s speech in Yangon that November.
His arrest in Mandalay came just one day after US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken had called on President U Thein Sein during talks in Nay Pyi Taw to release all political prisoners before he leaves office at the end of March.
“We are concerned about reports that U Gambira was arrested by authorities in Mandalay. We are seeking further details and will continue to closely monitor the case,” a US embassy spokesperson said yesterday.
Ms Siochana told The Myanmar Times that she was seriously concerned about the possible impact of detention on his fragile mental state. U Gambira suffers from acute post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), stemming from his earlier imprisonment when he was tortured. He is currently medicated and must follow a strict regimen of prescribed drugs. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia late last year, Ms Siochana said. Prior to the court appearance yesterday, police allowed Ms Siochana to get his medicine and instructions sent through. However, she estimates there is less than one month’s supply left.
According to the police report, some 15 officers went to the couple’s Mandalay hotel room shortly before midnight on January 19 following a tip-off by an informant.
However Ms Siochana said the pair had been followed before they got to Mandalay. After entering at Mae Sai, they had flown to Heho, then taken a bus to Meiktila, where they had stopped to visit his family. From there, they went to Mandalay. The couple had returned to Myanmar to get him a passport, and to have a new marriage certificate issued.
“He got through immigration at Tachileik, Heho. Why, when he’s in Mandalay, do 20 of them come to arrest him? It seems too much. We were harassed, followed by Special Branch, photographed in the lobby,” Ms Siochana 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.
Rory Magee, trauma specialist and head of clinical services at The Cabin in Chiang Mai, treated U Gambira for PTSD during 2014. He told The Myanmar Times that being detained again could lead to a dramatic setback in his health.
“[U Gambira’s imprisonment] will have produced a catastrophic effect on his fragile recovery from PTSD … Re-experiencing imprisonment will have triggered many of the traumatic memories that he still holds within his mind of all the diabolical torture he experienced seven years ago from the same authorities,” Mr Magee said. “When people with PTSD are exposed to triggers of their original trauma, it feels as if all the trauma is happening again in the here and now ... The effects on both the body and the central nervous system are overwhelming.”
U Gambira spent over a month in Oboe prison in 2009, one of five prisons he served time in.
The section under which the former monk has been charged appears to be a bailable offence, the International Commission of Jurists’ regional director Sam Zarifi said yesterday.
“Gambira’s arrest and detention seems to be another instance of poor prosecutorial discretion. The charges against him seem to be based on the Immigration Act, which is really aimed at foreigners. If the charge is that he has somehow lost his citizenship status, it should be at most an administrative matter to be settled, not a cause for detention. It’s hard to avoid the sense that he’s being harassed for his previous political activity. At any rate, he should be immediately released from detention, if necessary on bail,” Mr Zarifi said.