From 2005 to 2007, Gambira travelled all over Myanmar and persuaded people to rise up against 50 years of military rule. In September 2007, thousands of his peers followed this fearless Buddhist monk into the streets of the country, calling for democracy. The saffron revolution, as it became known, was suppressed and Gambira was sentenced to 68 years in prison. While in detention, he was tortured and beaten, suffering a skull fracture and serious brain injury. Gambira was released as part of an amnesty in 2012 and, stripped of his monk status, continues the work of bringing “real democracy” to his country.
Almost eight years have now passed since you led the saffron revolution. Looking back, what is your assessment of its impact?
The revolution could have changed the government and set up a new one, but we couldn’t prevent the former generals from being part of the new government. We could change [the country] partly, but not all of it.
But you paid a big price…
Yes. It was a horrible experience in prison. They punched me; they beat me… They wanted to know the names of my colleagues, but I didn’t answer them, so they beat me again. They tortured me physically, mentally and chemically. At first, I was held in a military compound and I could not sleep for nine days. Intelligence soldiers were asking me questions for nine days and nine nights in two-hour shifts.
Despite the injuries they inflicted, which still affect you to this day, you have decided to go back to Myanmar knowing that the government is looking for you. You have been arrested several times since you were released in January 2012. What are you fighting for?
[Gambira smiles, pointing out that Burmese intelligence agents hound him daily.] Our main goal is to change the government and to get a real democratic government. For that, first we need to work in reconciliation. Nowadays, Buddhist communities and Muslim communities in Burma are in conflict.
You’re talking about the Rohingya issue. Who is responsible for what is going on in Rakhine State?
It’s a Burmese political game. We don’t want Burmese people to die – we want to live together. We need reconciliation.
So you think that Rohingya people are “Burmese”…
Some of them are Burmese; some of them are Bengali from Bangladesh. Bangladeshi people should live in their country, but real Burmese-Rohingya should stay in Burma. It is a fact that they have lived and mixed together. That is the problem. Extreme Buddhists are saying that all of them are Bengali, when not all of them are.
[The extremist monk] U Wirathu is trying to spread Islamophobia through Burma: hate the Muslim, kill the Muslim… But Islamophobia is against the teachings of Buddha. Buddha said: “Live together, respect each other, love each other and educate each other peacefully.”
Why is Islamophobia leaving a mark on Myanmar society?
I’ll give you an example. Here, in Mae Sot, in northern Thailand, 75% of the people are Burmese, but they live as foreigners. Burmese people don’t try to convert Mae Sot into a Burmese city. However, Bengali people try to create a Bengali city in Rakhine. That’s why Rakhine people don’t like them.
In this Rohingya crisis, the voice of Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be missing…
She has also been trying to bring real democracy to Burma for many years. She has sacrificed her life and she has also defended Muslim people in Burma.
It’s not enough, but she has a lot of political duties, not only Muslim-related issues. She is not God, she is a human being, but she has always tried to defend all Burmese peoples. She has sacrificed her life.
What do you expect from the elections?
The Burmese government is lying to the people and to the international community. The elections this year will not be free and fair.
But some international media outlets would have us believe that Myanmar is heading towards democracy…
It’s a fake democratic government. They are former generals; they don’t want to amend the 2008 constitution nor [deal with] people’s demands. That is against democracy. They have changed their clothes, but they are afraid of what they made in the past.
Do you think the signing of the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) before the elections will be a milestone for peace?
The NCA is very important for the ethnic issue because, without it, the fight will continue and a lot of people will continue to die. Former generals are not honest, and ethnic leaders cannot trust them. Burmese military leaders have created the civil war. They need the civil war to [justify their actions] to the international community: “Burma is not peaceful, so we must rule the country.”