On Tuesday April 24th, Nyi Nyi Lwin (aka U Gambira), former Buddhist monk and leader of the Saffron Revolution in Myanmar in 2007, was handed a sentence of six months with hard labor for “immigration violations” by the new “democratic” government of Myanmar. This clearly politically motivated verdict comes in the midst of dozens of pardons of political prisoners by Myanmar’s new (and first) civilian government elected last November. It is casting some serious doubt on the integrity of the administration and its independence from the influence of the former military junta.
“Burmese authorities should drop this trumped-up case against U Gambira, who is being targeted for his prominent role in opposing military dictatorship… U Gambira’s case reeks of the ugly political prosecutions of discarded military juntas.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director, Human Rights Watch
U Gambira was originally sentenced to 68 years in prison following the 2007 monk-led protests against the rule of Than Shwe and the Burmese military junta, but he was released in 2012. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, he was routinely tortured and beaten during his incarceration. He already suffers from PTSD and mental illness caused by the treatment he received in prison, and his health has clearly deteriorated while being detained without bail for the last 3 months awaiting trial.
U Gambira reacted to his sentencing:
“The authorities might think my case is unrelated to any political issue. What I believe is the authorities fabricated the case to put me behind bars again. I am very disappointed. But I am not going to submit an appeal as I don’t believe in this judicial system, even after there were changes to a new government.”
He was charged under section 13(a) of the Burma Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act of 1947 for allegedly entering Myanmar from Thailand without an official visa. This is of course an absurd charge for a citizen entering their own country and is a clear violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Further suspicion arises from the fact that U Gambira was not detained at the border but was later arrested in Mandalay.
“The Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act has been used in the past to charge individuals in politically motivated cases.”
Despite winning a landslide victory in last November’s democratic elections, there remain doubts about the ability of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD to resist the influence of the former military junta, who retain significant powers — including control of the police — under Myanmar’s new constitution.
To be fair, since taking over control of the government, the NLD administration under president U Htin Kyaw has pardoned and released at least 80 political prisoners according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. However, there are still some 60 recognized political prisoners behind bars, as well as over 200 farmers and activists awaiting trials mostly for fighting the government’s unfair “land confiscation” practices.
Among those still imprisoned for their political activities is Myo Win, an advocate for the rights of farmers whose land has been seized by the state without compensation (a common practice in Myanmar). In a statement following a hearing in Mandalay, he said:
“We were told that the case we are facing is nothing related to political issues. But what I want to say here is the authorities and the government’s lawyers are misusing the laws just to keep activists and journalists behind bars. If the authorities don’t recognize those who are facing unjust trials and who are behind bars unlawfully, we have to question the judicial system under the new government, which is always talking about change.”
Amnesty International has posted a call to action with some ways people can help put pressure on the Burmese government to release U Gambira.