Saturday, February 11, 2012

Myanmar Detains Monk Recently Freed From Prison


February 10, 2012

Myanmar Detains Monk Recently Freed From Prison


BANGKOK — A prominent Burmese monk who was freed last month as part of a mass release of political prisoners was briefly detained again on Friday in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a group that tracks the plight of dissidents and democracy advocates in the country.

The monk, Ashin Gambira, was one of the organizers of the 2007 uprising against the military government that ruled Myanmar at the time. His arrest on Friday, after four weeks of freedom, appeared to demonstrate the limits of tolerance under Myanmar’s new civilian government.

The government of President Thein Sein, which took office less than a year ago, has rescinded a number of the authoritarian practices that for decades had made Myanmar one of the most repressive countries in Asia. It has been rewarded with increasing international reconciliation. Last month, a few hours after the prisoner release, the United States moved to restore full diplomatic relations.

Before Mr. Gambira was released on Friday, the State Department called on the government “to provide clarification on the purpose of his detention.”

“Given the Burmese government’s stated commitment to reform and democratization, we call on Burmese authorities to protect the fundamental freedoms of all its citizens, including all of those recently released from detention,” said Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, referring to Myanmar, per American policy, by its former name.

Many observers have been predicting some sort of backlash against the reforms by hard-liners in the government or factions of the military.

Mr. Gambira in recent weeks has remained critical of the government, telling an interviewer that Myanmar still had the “characteristics of a dictatorship.” He also sought to reopen a Yangon monastery that served as a center of opposition during the 2007 uprising.

Details of Mr. Gambira’s detention were slow to emerge Friday. The American Embassy in Myanmar said he was arrested early Friday at the monastery. The timing was reminiscent of the tactics used against dissidents by the former junta.

The Associated Press quoted a Home Ministry official in Myanmar as saying that Mr. Gambira had been taken in for “questioning in relation to an incident” and was released that evening.

Mr. Thein Sein, a former general, has quickly carried out reforms in recent months that have won the praise of, among others, the United States and the European Union, which were among Myanmar’s main critics during its long years of military rule. But amid the hurried efforts to write new laws, end some censorship of the media, release hundreds of political prisoners and woo foreign investors, there have been signs of fissures in the reform process.

Bo Kyi, one of the founders of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which is based along the Thai-Myanmar border, counts at least 415 political prisoners still in detention. The government is also struggling with the long-desired goal of national unity among Myanmar’s many ethnic groups.

Fighting continues between ethnic Kachin rebels and government troops in northern Myanmar, a longstanding conflict that was reignited last year and has resulted in a wave of refugees across the border into China. Separately, a cease-fire agreement signed last month with the Karen ethnic group appears to be fraying, with some Karen leaders denying that there even is an agreement.

Another cease-fire agreement, signed in December, between the government and the Shan State Army-South — a large militia in northern Myanmar — appears to have broken down, with reports of clashes between the two sides in recent days.

Such challenges are at odds with the picture being painted in Myanmar’s state media, which on Friday declared that the “peacemaking procedures are a success.”

“Eternal peace is now taking shape,” said an article in The New Light of Myanmar on Friday.

Still, foreign investors, who have flocked to Myanmar in recent weeks to look for business opportunities, say they are startled by the speed of the reforms.

“It really is puzzling how they’ve been able to turn on a heel and push so quickly in this other direction with economic reforms and civil liberties,” said John Pang, a Malaysian who organized a business delegation to Myanmar this week of prominent executives from the region.

“I’m well past wondering how genuine they are in their reforms,” Mr. Pang said. “The question is really whether it’s sustainable — and irreversible.”

Mr. Pang said the arrest of Mr. Gambira could help give outsiders some sense of the limits of tolerance amid the changes.

“All of this is starting to look like they are defying gravity,” Mr. Pang said. “I just want to know where the gravity is.”

Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from Washington.

2011 The New York Times Company


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