2012/02/11

Myanmar frees monk held for questioning

YANGON, February 11, 2012 (AFP) - Myanmar officials have freed a leading dissident Buddhist monk after a brief detention, his monastery said Saturday, following a call from the United States for his immediate release.

Gambira was taken away by authorities early on Friday and released that night, less than a month after he was freed from a jail term for his leading role in mass anti-government protests in 2007.

He was one of hundreds of political prisoners released in January, cutting short a 68-year jail term imposed for his key role in the 2007 "Saffron Revolution", which was brutally crushed by the former junta.

Since he was freed, Gambira has breached regulations by breaking into monasteries closed by the government after the mass monk-led demonstrations, a government official told AFP Friday on condition of anonymity.

After questioning he was taken to senior monks who reprimanded him for his behaviour, according to the abbot at Maggin monastery in Yangon, where Gambira is staying.

"He was released by authorities last night after the senior monks spoke to him," abbot Einda Ka told AFP.

After he was detained the United States said Myanmar's authorities, who have recently impressed the West with reformist moves, should release Gambira immediately.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said 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.

A quasi-civilian regime, 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 back into the political mainstream after more than two decades of marginalisation.

The opposition leader, who was released from house arrest soon after a 2010 election and has since been allowed to launch a bid to enter parliament, is running for office in April 1 by-elections.

On Saturday she begins campaigning in the rural constituency near Yangon where she is standing for a seat -- the first time she has been able to directly participate in an election -- and thousands of supporters are expected on the streets.

Observers and the international community are set to closely watch the upcoming 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.