While the Burmese authorities seem to being reaching out to opposition political groups including pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, renewed tensions have surfaced between Naypyidaw and dissident monks in the country.
On Sunday, the state-run media reported fresh legal charges were underway against influential Buddhist monk Ashin Gambira. The 33-year-old was only recently released from prison as part of a major amnesty after being jailed for his prominent role in the monk-led “Saffron Revolution” democracy protests in 2007.
The outspoken dissident is accused of breaking laws concerned with re-entering the monkhood without formal authorization after his release last month, and for breaking into three monasteries in Rangoon and squatting in one—all were previously sealed by the government during their crackdown on insurrection hotbeds in 2007.
The state-run media said that Gambira ignored three separate calls by the Sangha Maha Nayaka, the state-backed monk council, to present himself for formal admonition regarding these charges.
Gambira responded to the monk council on Feb. 8 by urging the senior Buddhist clergy to handle these cases in accordance with rules set out for monks and to resist any sort of influence by civilian authorities in the process, according to a letter obtained by The Irrawaddy.
He wrote that the sealed monasteries in Rangoon were shut down in a 2007 government raid, which he described as like a military attack against a rebel base. Gambira re-opened these monasteries, he said, because Buddhist monks and nuns like himself who were recently freed from incarceration had no proper accommodation and were staying in civilian residential quarters.
Gambira wrote that he strongly objected to allegations—mentioned in the summons by the council—that opening these monasteries broke the law. He also complained about the council's recent ruling to evict Ashin Pyinna Thiha, another prominent Buddhist monk in Rangoon, from his monastery for giving a talk at a party office of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.
In the letter, Gambira also expressed his “strong condemnation” to the council for taking no action whatsoever regarding the continued incarceration of 43 Buddhist monks for political reasons.
Tuesday's state-run media report said that such usage of “objection” and “condemnation” has made it impossible for the Sangha Council to deal with Gambira through normal clergy channels. Therefore, punitive actions will be taken against the dissident monk who was described as being “under a complete political spell.”
The United States expressed concern when the Burmese authorities briefly detained Gambira on Feb. 10 in order to force him to meet with the Sangha Council.
On Sunday, Gambira joined hundreds of people, including recently freed 88 Generation Students dissidents, who accompanied Ashin Pyinna Thiha from Sadhu Pariyatti Monastery to another monastery on the outskirts of Rangoon following his eviction by the council.
Currently, details of how the authorities will bring Gambira to trial are still unclear. But any legal proceedings would undoubtedly undermine the otherwise positive political atmosphere in the run-up to the parliamentary by-elections in April, in which Suu Kyi is contesting a seat.
The relationship between Buddhist monks and successive military regimes in Burma has always been frosty, and this situation does not seem to have improved since the nominally-civilian government took office last year.
A confrontation between a group of monks and the Burmese authorities in Pakokku Town of Upper Burma in 2007 led to the largest anti-government nationwide demonstrations since the failed democracy uprising of 1988.