Myanmar: UN finds imprisonment of Saffron Revolution leader Gambira contrary to UDHR

On 3 November 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention published its long-awaited decision that the Myanmar government’s repeated detention of Saffron Revolution protest leader, and former monk, Gambira, was arbitrary and in contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Gambira paid many sacrifices for his criticism of the previous Myanmar governments – he was detained, charged, sentenced to 68 years imprisonment, tortured, de-frocked, harassed, detained again, and made stateless,” said Oliver Spencer, Head of Asia at ARTICLE 19.

“The new Myanmar government should demonstrate its goodwill towards former political prisoners by implementing the UN Working Group’s recommendations namely to investigate his case, identify and change the relevant laws, and provide Gambira and other former political prisoners with adequate compensation,” he added.

The UN Working Group which reviewed Gambira’s case in session in September 2016, announced on 3 November that the detention was indeed arbitrary and in contravention with Articles 10 and 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The decision stated that the Myanmar government’s response to the case, asserting that Gambira was prosecuted according to Myanmar law, was not a legitimate excuse. The UN Working Group argued that “the mere conformity with domestic law in itself cannot be used to justify a detention of an individual”. The Myanmar government – as a UN Member State – has a responsibility under the UDHR to abide by international human rights norms.

Gambira, also known as Nyi Nyi Lwin, was one of the monks that as a leader of the All-Burma Monks’ Alliance, took a central place in the 2007 protests in Myanmar against the then military government, known worldwide as the “Saffron Revolution” because of the number of monks that took part dressed in their traditional saffron-coloured robes.

He was sentenced in 2008 to 68 years in prison, including 12 years hard labour, for a range of charges brought by the government in retaliation for his leadership of the protests.

Gambira was released in 2012 and fled to Thailand, but earlier this year returned to Myanmar and was arrested without warrant. It was later announced that the arrest was on the basis that he entered the country illegally, having been stripped of his citizenship. He was sentenced in April under the Immigration Act to a further six months imprisonment with hard labour, and was released in July 2016. Gambira and his family members have allegedly also faced harassment in the form of surveillance by state officials.

The UN Working Group requested in its decision that the Myanmar government “take the necessary steps to remedy the situation of Mr. Gambira and bring it into conformity with the standards and principles set forth in the UDHR” and in particular “the adequate remedy would be to accord him an enforceable right to compensation”.

ARTICLE 19 urges the new Myanmar government to commit to implementing the UN Working Group’s recommendations, and to demonstrate a reformed relationship with the UN’s human rights mechanisms by responding to the UN within the UN’s six month deadline.

ARTICLE 19 also calls on the government to sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).