An Open Letter from Ashin Gambhira, Part I

Source The Best Friend Intl e.V, 24 Sept

Today we commemorate the five-year anniversary of the Saffron Revolution. We all remember the pictures of tens of thousands of Buddhist monks marching peacefully through the streets of Rangoon, chanting the Metta Sutta, calling for dialogue and national reconciliation.

We also recall the violent crackdown by Burmese military forces. Monks and laypeople alike were shot down on the streets, monasteries raided and destroyed. Monks were taken away to prison cells and labor camps. Many had to flee the country and are living in exile until now. Others simply vanished.

The following is an open letter by U Gambhira (aka Ko Nyi Nyi Lwin), one of the leaders of the Saffron Revolution. He was sentenced to 68 years’ imprisonment for his involvement in organizing the peacefull protests. He was forcibly disrobed, put in solitary confinement and tortured. Since his release on January 13, 2012, he has been under constant watch by plainclothes police, following his every move. It became impossible for him to stay in a monastery, which forced him to disrobe. And he is still suffering from the aftermath of the torture he was subjected to.

U Gambhira (aka Ko Nyi Nyi Lwin) has always said he doesn’t want to leave his country. But with his bad health situation and lack of proper medical treatment in Burma, he has recently applied for a passport in hopes of going to Thailand for medical treatment. His application has not been approved for many months now.

This open letter is an appeal to the Burmese government and the international community to help U Gambhira to get the medical treatment he needs, as well as a condemnation of the strife between Burmese Buddhists and Muslims, and a background on the lead-up to the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

Ashin Gambhira’s Letter – Part I

“Alex, I have been trying to write to you regarding my health conditions/concerns. Due to the aching in my head and eyes, it has been very difficult for me to write – even one paragraph. Anyway, I will try to write about the difficulties I faced in the past and the problems I am facing now in order to let everyone know.

“It has taken some time to reply to your mail because I have been writing to the Sangha (Monks) about the 5th anniversary of Saffron Revolution and the wrongful protests in Mandalay [on September 3rd,
2012, thousands of protesters, including hundreds of monks, marched in
support of the president’s proposal to deport the Rohingya Muslim
minority group]

The early beginnings
“To eradicate the dictatorship in Burma/Myanmar, I started organizing Buddhist monks and nuns from different Buddhist schools who have the same ambitions and convictions as me in 2003/2004. The organizing process wasn’t very effective with my education, which I have had to pay attention to on the other hand. In addition, I didn’t have any support or help for this particular organizing purpose. We had to keep up our work with the donations from our respective individual donors. We had to work really hard without any funds or offices dedicated to the purpose. Despite all the austerities, we managed to organize around five hundred Sangha members at the end of 2005.”

Military intelligence spreading anti-Muslim propaganda
“During this organizing process, we came across a group of military intelligence officers discreetly distributing books such as “Desert Flower” and several other books written in Burmese language that are against the teachings of Gautama Buddha and meant to create conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims.

“The military intelligence had managed to put these books in the hands of young Buddhist novices or monks. Several false statements in those books have actually convinced some Sangha members, and it is very sad to see them believe in something that is false. Those kinds of books could introduce religious extremism, segregation, racism and violence into society. Our Sangha team has tried to eradicate those kinds of propaganda initiated by the military intelligence during our journey of organizing the Sanghas.

“In fact, I actually read those kind of books, and was almost convinced myself when I was a novice at around the age of 18 and 19. After I was ordained as a monk at around 21, I started to see the truth and got rid of these false extremist beliefs. I was able to do that because of the knowledge from Buddhist teachings, my politician father’s ideas, and my own political experiences.

“Since I was young, I have always been reading real-life books and Buddhist teachings and texts at the same time. After reading the books of Mahatma Gandhi and a Burmese writer, Saya Paragu, I started to deeply understand the meanings of Ahimsa, Thisar, and Agayaha. Amongst the many teachings of Buddha and Mahavira, Gandhi found a way to better deal with his political difficulties by using religious perspectives such as those of Ahimsa and Thisa. I myself have found ways to defend the oppressed people of Burma under the military dictatorship using Buddhist teachings.”

Mae Sot, Thailand
“In June 2006, I went to the Thai-Burma Border with my eldest brother, Aung Kyaw Kyaw, to meet Burma’s democracy activists. During my time in Mae Sot, Thailand, I took classes in political theories and had discussions with other activists. I went back to Burma in August to speed up the organizing process. The process became smooth with the help and donations from the people I met in Mae Sot. They had helped us with the knowledge and funding. Now it is very sad to hear that they are having difficulties paying their office rent.”

Meeting with other organzizers of the Saffron Revolution
“One day in July 2006, I heard details about an underground monks’ association organized by Venerable U Thawpaka (Ashin Sopaka) and U Thiriya (King Zero) from my personal friend, U Tin Kwe (U Lin) while I was attending a conference organized by the Young Monks Association. I tried to find out more about the association organized by those monks before I went back to Rangoon. Finally, I decided to meet Venerable U Thiriya (King Zero) face to face.

Ashin Gambhira after his release in 2012“I do not remember the exact date, but I met him at a monastery in Bahan township while he was visiting Rangoon. We talked and reached agreements on the strategies for the revolution. I also met with Venerable U Pyinyar Thiri (Ashin Pannasiri), and both of us had to work tirelessly during the Saffron Revolution. It was U Pyinyar Thiri who answered all the questions and interviews from CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and AFP in English.

At the end of 2006, I got in touch with the monk associations from Mandalay, and we worked together on the new strategies for the underground movement.

“During the year 2007, I also helped Venerable U Kutariya found a new Young Monks Association which consists of 12 townships in his area.

“I am afraid I cannot write all the details because of my health. That’s why I am trying to keep it brief.

“On the first of May in 2007, my colleagues including Ko Thurein Aung were arrested because of their involvement in the labor conference held at the American Center. I also had to be very careful at that time.

“I am not going to write about the 2007 Saffron Revolution since you already know what happened during that time. I will write more about it when my health gets better.

Khanni Prison
“I didn’t get to sleep and eat much as I tried to work towards our goal with conviction, hope, belief and ambition. My heath condition worsened after I got arrested. I was questioned by military intelligence for months without a good night’s sleep. I was put in a narrow 12’x8’ prison cell. I didn’t receive proper medical treatment either. The worst of all was, I was put away in a prison too far from my family. The food they give in the prison can’t even keep a healthy person well. Moreover, I was tortured more physically and psychologically than other prisoners.

“During my time in Khanni Prison, I was put in a 12’x8’ prison cell with a cold and solid concrete floor. Sometimes prison officials came to my cell, covered my head with a black bag and hit me. If I remember it right, they did that to me six or seven times. For months, I was put on a solid concrete floor with my hands cuffed to my back and my feet locked in a chain. Scars even developed from the cuffs and chains, and those scars will be with me until the day I die.”

Kalay Prison
“At around 4 o’clock on the morning of 12th May 2010, five soldiers with guns took me out of the prison after they covered my head with a black bag in which a tiny hole was made for me to breathe. I arrived at Kalay Prison at around 7 pm on the 13th of May 2010. Before I was put in a small cell the night I arrived, I was freed from handcuffs which had been inside my skin for months now. The harder I tried to move my hands, the tighter the handcuffs became. That’s the nature of handcuffs. I was put in the dark cell number 10, which was in a separate part of Kalay Prison. In my dark cell, I tried several times to move my handcuffs-free rotten hands to my chest, but it didn’t work because I couldn’t feel my hands at the time.

“On the morning of May 14, some prison official came to my cell and took the chains off of my feet. I had to exercise for months to be able to move my hands and feet like a normal person.

“The cell I was put in was situated at the end of a long building which was separated from the main building. There were thirty-seven political prisoners in Kalay Prison. The prison officials separated me from them with metal bars and strings. My days in prison went by feeling lonely.

“In Kalay Prison, I also had to fight a malaria infection from Khanni Prison for seven months. During my sickness, I could hear a knocking sound in my ears. It didn’t go away until three months after my release.

“It would take months to write about the serious situation and circumstances I had to face. Alex, I will write to you as I get better. Since this is an open letter, everybody will be able to read it. I will write more about the protests of the monks in Mandalay. I know exactly who led the protests, and why they did it…

The original letter was written in Burmese by U Gambhira (aka Ko Nyi Nyi Lwin) on September 9th as an open letter to Ms. Alexandra Rösch.

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