2012/02/19

Dissident Myanmar monk to face trial: state media

YANGON, February 19, 2012 (AFP) - A leading dissident Buddhist monk who was among hundreds of political prisoners released last month is to face trial in Myanmar, state media said Sunday.

Gambira "will have to face the charges of squatting" in one monastery in Yangon and breaking into two others, which led to him being detained briefly by police earlier this month, according to the state-run New Light of Myanmar.

The newspaper said authorities "are taking legal steps to bring (him) to trial".

Gambira was one of scores of political prisoners freed in January, cutting short a 68-year jail term imposed for his key role in 2007 mass protests known as the "Saffron Revolution", which were brutally crushed by the former junta.

The monk, who goes by only one name, was taken away by authorities early on February 10 and released that night.

His detention drew sharp criticism from the United States.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at the time that given the "government's stated commitment to reform and democratisation, we call on Burmese authorities to protect the fundamental freedoms of all its citizens, including all of those recently released from detention".

Myanmar's release of about 500 political prisoners since October has been hailed by Western countries, which have long demanded the freeing of such detainees before they would consider lifting sanctions.

Since being let out of prison in January, Gambira has breached regulations by breaking into monasteries closed by the government after the monk-led demonstrations, a government official told AFP on the day he was detained.

The New Light said that after questioning Gambira was taken to senior monks who reprimanded him for his behaviour and "wished for legal actions" against him after he admonished them for not helping jailed monks.

Myanmar ostensibly civilian government, which came to power in March last year after almost half a century of outright military rule, has surprised critics with its apparent desire to reform and open up to the outside world.

A key sign of change has been the acceptance of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party into the political mainstream after more than two decades of marginalisation.

The opposition leader, released from house arrest soon after a 2010 election, has been allowed to run for parliament in April 1 by-elections.

Observers and the international community are set to closely watch the polls after widespread criticism and accusations of cheating in 2010, and have called on the government to ensure they are free and fair.

The 2007 protests that landed Gambira in jail began as small rallies against the rising cost of living but escalated into huge anti-government demonstrations led by crowds of monks.

They posed the biggest challenge to military rule in nearly two decades, leading to a bloody crackdown by the authorities. At least 31 people were killed by security forces while hundreds were beaten and detained.