USA Day 4: Saffron Robes and Revolutions

With New York City bracing itself for the mother of all snow-storms slowly making its way up the East coast, our fingers were crossed that we’d manage to make it to JFK before it struck. But before leaving we had one last person to see – in fact the only former political prisoner in NY who I had had previous contact with some time ago. Thankfully the timings have worked out well to allow us a visit to Metta Parami Monastery in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and a meeting with U Pyinya Zawta, a founding member and the Executive Director in exile of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance (ABMA). The organisation was formed by a group of senior monks in response to the events of August 2007 when the military junta raised fuel and food prices overnight to astronomical levels. The leaders are recognised as the primary organisers and co-ordinators of the activities of the Saffron Revolution in September 2007 that ended in bloodshed as thousands were arrested with many more forced into hiding or fleeing to the border. One of the most famous leaders, U Gambira is currently serving a 63 year sentence in Kalay prison. However 3 other leaders, U Pyinya Zawta, U Gawsita and U Agga Nyana (below) escaped from Burma and were granted asylum in USA and are now living in the Brooklyn borough of Bedford Stuyvesant at the Metta Parami Monastery.


U Gawsita, U Agga and U Pyinya Zawta. Leaders of Burma’s Saffron Revolution.

We were welcomed to the monastery by U Pyinya Zawta who had just arrived back from an advocacy trip in Georgia – the 3 monks continue to play a crucial role on raising awareness and educating people about the situation in Burma and their trip to Los Angeles in 2010, despite Burma VJ not winning the Oscar, brought Burma’s plight right to the very heart of the world’s celebrity stage. The monastery, an ordinary building by appearance on a very normal Brooklyn street, is a hive of activity and is the headquarters of the ABMA. It was also a nice and unexpected opportunity to finally meet Aung Moe Win who is also living here at the monastery. Having met U Zawana and other monks on the Thai Burma border at various times over the past years it was a great opportunity to now be finally sitting with U Pyinya Zawta.

U Pyinya Zawta was jailed for a total of 10 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons

U Pyinya Zawta entered a monastery at the age of 11. When he was 20 he was ordained as a monk and began attending Swedawsyin Pali University. Now an instructor of Buddhist literature, he moved to Rangoon Aloan Aung Mingala Pali University. In 1988 U Pyinya Zawta became President of Aloan Township Young Monks Union. In 1990 he completed his formal religious study. Having received a degree in Dharmasaria, he helped found the Zawtanarama teaching institute for the further study of Buddhism. That same year he was imprisoned in Insein Prison for his involvement with the first monks’ protest against the military, in 1988, that had usurped power from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party after the military’s landslide election loss. Released from prison, in 1993, U Pyinya Zawta became an instructor at Zawtanarama Monastic Institute. He was rearrested again in 1996, but released after being interrogated. In 1998 he was sentenced to seven years in Insein. In 2005, U Pyinya Zawta moved to the Maggin Monastery and opened another study hall and an HIV/AIDS patient support center. In 2007 he helped form and led the All Burma Monks’ Alliance (www.allburmamonksalliance.org) to protest military rule in Burma. Tens of thousands of saffron-robed monks marched through the streets with thousands of civilians, chanting the Buddhist Metta Sutta invocation for loving kindness and peace in the world. As a result, Maggin Monastery was padlocked by the regime and the sitting Abbot was imprisoned. To evade arrest, U Pyinya Zawta fled Rangoon, resurfacing in Thailand in January, 2008. Granted refugee status, he resettled in the US in September, 2008. As Director in Exile of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance, U Pyinya Zawta has spoken extensively around the US, promoting awareness of the Burmese people’s struggle for democratic freedom.

Still today Maggin Monastery remains locked and under the control of the military authorities. In December 2007, just one month after the monastery was raided and locked I visited Maggin Monastery and you can see the video footage below:

With the clock running down we paid our respects, said our thanks and had to head back into Manhatten to collect our bags and leave New York before the storm arrived… I think we’d have both been very happy if the storm came early but unfortunately it wasn’t to be and despite my efforts at stalling in the airport which resulted in a not unusual announcement over the tanoy for certain passengers to hurry up or risk missing their flight we kissed New York a fond farewell and finally USA has made its mark on this work.

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The Independent Sunday Review

Good old Independent – more press for the campaign. This time a short piece in the Sunday supplement magazine “The Review” and a write up about the exhibition at Amnesty UK plus U Zawana’s portrait – he was jailed for more than 16 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons.

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Thailand Day 15: Mae Sot

In trying to make the most of this extra time here on the border it just constantly seems that there is never enough time. Meetings that just never seem to happen meaning that my plans to get to Chiang Mai and catch up with Rachel, and friends at Chiang Mai and DVB are likely to be put on the back burner again and may not happen at all this time which is a shame. The week has been busy with re-editing and re-shooting mixed with plenty of “R ‘n’ R” mostly over at Generation Wave’s HQ where I’ve been staying for a bit. So far this week I’ve retaken a number of portraits and yesterday and today once again we managed to do U Sandawbartha (16 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons), Moe Myint (12 years in Insein prison on 4 occasions) and Dr Tun Thu (8 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons).

Dr Tun Thu

Unfortunately Dr Tun Thu has been suffering from what is possibly a serious case of post traumatic stress syndrome due to his time as a political prisoner. Last year when I met him he was fit and healthy and working as a doctor in the Mae Tao clinic. In the months in-between I was very sad to learn of his failing mental health and he appears to have suffered very badly indeed. But meeting him now it would actually appear that he is hopefully turning the corner. One can’t begin to imagine how the mind has suffered through years of torture and abuse as a political prisoner. The body can show you the scars of pain but it’s what’s inside that can so often be so much more painful. There is no support system for former political prisoners other than their friends and colleagues here on the border. But there is possibly hope that comes in the form of the ‘Borderline Project‘ for former political prisoners which is a proposal to form a safe house, training and rehabilitation project here in Mae Sot and is being set up by my friend Thiha and Markus Baude. It is an excellent proposal and I can only hope that they are successful in their search for funding… I know how difficult that is (not one penny funding received yet for this project – ed). Also I’ve been busy with more UNHCR work today and will continue tomorrow as well as interviews need translating and more need to be taken… but still no response to my requests for a meeting with the UNHCR office themselves.

Other news I learn today is about Human Rights Watch plans to step up their political prisoner campaign “2100 by 2010“. They will be holding an exhibition (installation) in Grand Central Station in New York in June possibly around Aung San Suu Kyi’s 65th birthday. It looks really impressive and will hopefully keep up the awareness in the public domain – it certainly should being in one of the worlds busiest train stations. They have arranged for one of the world’s top portrait photographers Platon to come and photograph former political prisoners to be part of this campaign. Nice idea… wonder where that came from? I had meetings with HRW back in December 2009 about my work linking with their campaign but despite initial meetings outlining how ideal it was unfortunately nothing came of it… and here they now have one of the world’s top portrait photographers instead. That’s just life, but I am more pleased that one of the worlds top photographers is showing an interest in Burma and in particular political prisoners. I for one can’t wait to see his pictures and I only hope he does my friends justice…

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Burma’s Monks Challenge Junta

The Buddhist monks of Burma have delivered an ultimatum to the Burmese military government: If the government will not apologize for and stop the persecution, assassination and contempt of Buddhist monks and the people of Burma until October 2nd. 2009, a second wave of the Saffron-Revolution including demonstrations of the monks will take place, starting on October 3rd in Burma.

For more details visit Democracy for Burma

(Top row left to right)

U Teza was detained for 8 years in Insein and Thayarwaddy prisons.
U Kyaw Myint was detained for 3 years in Insein prison.

(Bottom row left to right)

U Naing Linn was detained for 2 years in Pathein prison.
U Win Naing was detained for 5 years in Mandalay prison

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Lwin Lwin Myint, sister of U Gambira, talks of her brother’s experience

Interview with Ma Lwin Lwin Myint and Ko Lu Maw Naing (sister and brother-in-law to U Gambira). U Gambira is currently detained in Kalay prison in Sagaing division serving a 68 year sentence. The interview took place on July 20th 2009 in Nu Po refugee camp on the Thai Burma border where they are both currently living as refugees having been forced to flee Burma for their own security.

JM James Mackay

LL Lwin Lwin Myint (U Gambira’s sister)

KM Ko Lu Maw (U Gambira’s sister’s husband)


JM When was the last time that you saw your brother?

LL September 2008 in Insein prison

JM How was he?

LL He was ok

JM What is his opinion of the charges against him?

KM He was unlawfully accused in the first place. It is a crime he didn’t commit. Even the students in that movement (saffron revolution) did not commit the charges against them. U Gambira was charged under the Electronic Act which is using the internet – they make using the internet a crime. Another charge against him is religious disrespectfulness. This charge was put against him because during the September uprising all the monks praying on the streets it made the generals look bad. This is what the unlawful charges are against U Gambira, he is not guilty and I am sure he will feel the same. Four different occasions under the Electronic act added up to 20 years, so 5 years for each occasion. And the religious act added up to a total of 68 years.

JM When you last saw him he hadn’t been sentenced because he was sentenced in November 2008. Have you had any contact with him since then

LL Yes, my family have. We had to flee Burma before his trial.

JM Why did you both have to leave Burma?

KM We are activists in the movement. I was along side my brother in law (U Gambira) in the September 2007 movement.

JM Was the SPDC threatening you as a family member of U Gambira?

KM/LL Currently the younger brother, the older brother and her sister’s husband have been arrested. The parents are being watched constantly – they were called to Rangoon to be a witness in the court and if they don’t go they will be arrested. Currently in their home in Meitkila there is intelligence people watching. Also at the home of her oldest sister in Rangoon they are outside watching always.

JM Why are all your family members in prison? Is it because U Gambira is so prominent or is it because of their own activities?

KM They were arrested because of U Gambira’s political activities. First the SPDC tried to force U Gambira to stop his political activities and be on their side, but he refused. So they turned to the family members and told them to persuade U Gambira to stop, but they also refused. That is how they all ended up in prison.

JM Was that before U Gambira was sentenced?

LL Yes, that was whilst he was in court on trial.

JM So that would explain why he received such a long sentence.

KM Even now, they still approach the eldest sister in Rangoon, saying they will give her support and money if she will do as they say – to act for them and persuade her brother to stop. They want U Gambira to cut his connection with the movement. Even recently, a month ago, they approached her to talk to U Gambira for them.

JM So SPDC are attempting to force all leading activists to stop their activities, and if they don’t stop they give them even longer sentences to ensure the threat goes away

KM Yes, this is right. U Gambira has been a monk since he was 12 and he became a prominent activist leader in 2006. He is now 30 years old on June 19 the same day as Daw Suu and he is a leader so he is a threat to them.

JM The important thing for the international community to see is that he is a monk not a criminal. He is a revered person. They have charged him with religious disrespectfulness but do they treat him with disrespect in the same way that they treat other political prisoners in jail?

KM Yes – just the same kinds of torture. In 2008 October the government military intelligence gave him some milk and he got very sick. Eventually they sent him to the prison hospital. He was vomiting and was very weak – he suffered from severe exhaustion and headaches. He was there for nearly one month. Also at night only to U Gambira’s cell they shone a very strong light all night long towards his eyes to mentally torture him. That was all before he was sentenced.

LL In January 2009 he was sent from Insein to Mandalay prison. In that point in Mandalay he kept doing his Buddhist practice every day and during his time walking and chanting he was protesting also and was requesting to meet with Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi. Also he did one week hunger strike in Mandalay prison to protest. Then he was put into solitary confinement for one month because of this. Then he was moved to Kande prison. Again he did hunger strike in Kande prison. One time In Kande prison when he was allowed out of his cell, he refused to go back, again demanding a meeting with Than Shwe and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. They beat him and dragged him back to his cell. Then he transferred to Kalay prison in Sagaing division where he is now.

JM Now he is in Kalay prison it is almost impossible for your parents to visit him, this is a tactic they use against high profile activists to make them suffer even more.

LL Yes they have done this to all of my family – my older brother is in Taungyi prison, younger brother is in Kyaukphu prison and my brother in law is in Moulmein prison. My parents live in Meitkila so it is very difficult for them to visit him.

JM Is it because of their connection to U Gambira or because of their activities?

LL A combination of both. My brother and my brother in law were both arrested on the anniversary of the September 2007 demonstrations last year. They planned to hold a prayer ceremony and then release balloons to mark the anniversary but they were arrested the night before. They both were sentenced to 5 years each.

JM Do you worry that your remaining family members not arrested will be arrested and targeted as well.

LL We are worried for them all of the time. They are targeted and watched all of the time but my parents and oldest sister cannot flee because they have to stay to look after the family members in prison.

JM So in a way they have become prisoners themselves even though they are not in jail. Again this seems to be another tactic of the SPDC to make life difficult for any kind of opposition.

KM Even when the election is finished the high profile people won’t be released. High profile people like U Gambira, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Min Ko Naing, 88 Generation are the biggest threat to the SPDC so they will not release them

JM Do you fear then that you will never see your brother again?

LL We hope that one day we will see him again when the situation changes but I still worry for all my family in prison. U Gambira is suffering from weak nervous system because of the incident with the milk in Insein prison

KM When that happened they didn’t let him see the doctor or give him medical treatment. They kept him in his cell. Only after I wrote letters and emails to the media about this incident, they changed their mind because of the media pressure and he was submitted to prison hospital. He is mentally strong but physically weak because of this attempted poisoning and beatings so we worry very much for him.

JM Ban Ki-Moon constantly re-iterates that the UN want to see all political prisoners released yet very little changes. What do you feel the UN should do?

KM The UN should take action in an effective way in the Security Council like they did in Sudan – with the president of Sudan. If the UN take serious action only then will the regime be under threat and the situation might change, but with Ban Ki-Moon and Gambari just visiting and talking about pressure nothing will happen. They only release some political prisoners who have come to the end of their sentences or petty criminals – not people like U Gambira.

JM When Cyclone Nargis hit in May 2008 we saw many people arrested for helping deliver aid. Without the help of monks and ordinary people probably many more would have died. Even though he was in jail did U Gambira have an involvement in getting aid to the Delta?

KM When the Nargis happened, during a prison visit U Gambira asked us to go and help the victims as much as we can. So we went to the area around Bogolaye and Mawkyun. We helped the victims with the recovery process, with healthcare and food supplies and built toilets. We went to the Delta twice and after the second time the SPDC came after us and then we had to flee the country.

LL The SPDC realised that the whole family were involved in activism and not just U Gambira. We were involved in Cyclone Nargis and then planning the anniversary of the Saffron Revolution and then at that point the SPDC realised that the whole family involved so they started targeting our whole family. The brothers were arrested for the anniversary and we knew we would be next so we had to flee.

JM Many international governments donated huge amounts of aid and money to the cyclone victims. Did you see any examples of SPDC interfering with aid being delivered?

KM Normally when you want to give aid you have to give SPDC a list of everything you have in your truck when you pass through the checkpoints, but we didn’t because we went by boat and bribed the boat owner so we weren’t seen, so our aid got to the people without being searched. When aid is delivered, the headman of the village (who is government) has to go and collect it. He then asks the village people for money if they want to receive aid – £1000 kyat each and they say this is to pay for the fuel to bring the aid to the village.

LL You can by many stuff in Mingalar market and Nyaung Binlay market especially you will see plenty of mosquito nets – not a few – thousands of nets which are sold by organizations not just individual people. Some of my friends including some reporters they give us this information as well. But the NGOs have to deal with the government.

KM SPDC also donated money to these victims and to monasteries but the SPDC collect this money from the general public not from their own money.

JM The SPDC, yet again, are interfering on every level and this is the same with other issues where there is intimidation and persecution on every level against anyone who opposes them.

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