THE MYANMAR TIMES, 2014
A key figure in the 'Saffron Revolution' protests that engulfed Myanmar in 2007, former monk U Gambira spent four years and two months behind bars – and was brutally tortured by his captors – before being released from prison in a 2012 amnesty. The former child soldier and political prisoner's new struggle is learning to deal with PTSD.
NOTE: This piece was published in 2014. Now, in 2018, Gambira is waiting on a humanitarian visa clearance in order to move to Australia.
IT WAS the meditation that Gambira learned as a young monk that helped him to survive prison, with its beatings, boredom and awful food. It helped him to be free – “free from fear, free from anger, free from grief”, he says – despite the bare walls and iron bars.
These days, he meditates just once a day, before bed.
While the rest of us take it for granted, sleep does not come easy for Gambira, who shot to prominence as one of the leaders of the 2007 protests. When it does finally arrive, his dreams are filled with recurrent nightmares.
“I have dreams – it is like physical torture. They’re not really beating [me] now, but it is not far away,” he explains, sitting on his friend's couch at a house on the outskirts of the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.
A pair of jeans and a plain T-shirt – sometimes matched with black-rimmed glasses and a leather jacket – have replaced the monk’s robes that the 35-year-old wore for most of his adult life.
Some outward signs of his time in the Sangha remain. When speaking Burmese, he has a deep, rhythmic voice - a cadence that likely developed from years of chanting. Like many monks, Gambira had a formidable memory. This helped him greatly when he went underground before the uprising, as it was too dangerous for plans to be written down.
He can still recall much about the four years and two months he spent behind bars — normally solitary confinement — in prisons in Yangon, Sagaing, Ayeyarwady and Mandalay regions. But since walking free in January 2012, Gambira has struggled to remember basic things, such as taking the minimum-dose mood stabilisers he has been prescribed, or the antihistamines for his sinus problems.
A physician who treated him upon his release said he showed signs of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) from the severe beatings inflicted by guards. When he first got out, his speech had been affected and he was prone to slurring.
Life after prison was tough. Never out of the spotlight for long, Gambira made a short-lived return to the Sangha, and entered into an even shorter marriage. He was rearrested several times and eventually moved to Thailand, where he sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Some of the scars he bears from prison, like those around his wrists from being forced to wear steel handcuffs for months at a time, will not fade. With treatment, though, there is hope that his poor memory, insomnia, headaches and recurrent nightmares – all textbook PTSD symptoms – can be alleviated, if not cured.
In mid-2014, Gambira became an outpatient at a high-end rehabilitation facility on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. At US$13,000 a month the treatment programs would normally be outside Gambira’s means, but he has been taken on for free as part of the centre’s CSR program.
His treatment involves a regular schedule of yoga, mindfulness meditation and eye movement directional reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, overseen by his therapist.
EMDR was developed in the late 1980s by Dr Francine Shapiro who, while taking a walk one day, found that moving her eyes from side to side reduced the severity of troubling memories. She conducted tests and developed a clinical method that involved having a patient make repetitive eye movements from one side to the other, often following the therapist’s pen or finger, while conjuring up the thoughts or memories they found most troubling.
While initially dismissed as fringe science, a psychiatric snake oil for the 1990s, studies have since shown eye movements appear to play some role in processing traumatic memories – though exactly how this works is a matter of some conjecture.
The therapist asks the patient to remember a scenario or event in as much detail as possible: sights, sounds, smells, sensations, emotions. It’s shown to have a high success rate, and as a rule of thumb can halve the amount of therapy time required.
That Gambira is in need of treatment is clear. When he arrived in Thailand, Gambira was to be an in-patient but became so distressed when staff took away his medication – standard practice in an addiction treatment facility – that he insisted on leaving. The fact that he would be unable to leave the facility and would have to surrender basic freedoms such as regulating his own medication intake seemed to trigger something. The clinic agreed to take him on as their first outpatient, provided he kept up his appointments.
Sitting on a couch in the sunny group therapy room, his 'doctor' explains that trauma can generally be divided into two categories: “little t” and “big T”.
The former includes upsetting experiences, such as a bad breakup, a humiliation, a failure and getting fired: events that can have a major and enduring impact on a person’s mental state.
“Big t” trauma, meanwhile, completely overwhelms a person, and is characterised by an acute sense of helplessness and founded, abiding fear of death. It often presents in witnesses or victims of violence, natural disasters, rape, war. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder gained widespread recognition after the Vietnam War, with the “you weren’t there, man” phenomenon of shell-shocked veterans rising to prominence and giving way to a broader dialogue. PTSD gained official recognition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, in the 1980s.
Gambira’s is trauma with a big, big “T”. This sort is not consigned to the semantic memory – that is, the “this is something that happened at x point in time”, factual-recall part of the brain. Those with PTSD exist on the brink, in a near-permanent state of heightened anticipation.
Sensory triggers can bring trauma crashing back into the present, with overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and fear. There are also physical effects: sudden rushes of adrenaline, an elevated pulse, affected breath. Dr Magee gives the example of a former patient who’d seen action during his time in the armed forces and who, when a car backfired, was suddenly nowhere to be seen. As far as this man’s mind and body were concerned, he was still in a war zone.
To tackle Gambira’s most serious traumas, his therapist asks him to imagine the worst period at each of the five prisons he did time in, while guiding him through eye movements. Overall, Gambira says, he has found that starting EMDR has reduced the incidence and severity of nightmares, his moods have stabilised, his headaches have all but gone away, and he is less easily triggered. He still has an extraordinary amount of trauma to contend with, but he’s working through it.
“I think I am getting better,” Gambira says. “About 80 percent; 20pc remains. I [still] get really sad; I need to take a rest. The doctors tell me to take a rest for a year – at least.”
trauma with a big, big t
A map of Hkamti Prison that Gambira drew from memory. Top-right are the words he carved on his cell wall.
child soldier, monk, fugitive
Gambira was born in June 1979 as Mg Nyi Nyi Lwin, a name he tattooed crudely on the back of his hand as a child. His father was a publisher and a key organiser of anti-government protests in Meiktila in 1988; young Mg Nyi Nyi Lwin would help his mother give food to protesters at sit-ins.
Despite his later pro-democracy activities, he laughingly describes himself as a “black sheep” of the family. He ran away from home at 12 to join the Tatmadaw but quickly grew to dislike the system of discipline that saw the entire unit punished for one member’s misbehaviour. Occasionally there were beatings. He lasted just four months before deserting, and entered the Sangha.
The 2007 protests, quickly dubbed the Saffron Revolution, were a long time coming. An underground networks of activists had been quietly working for years to lay the groundwork for an uprising in the style of 1988; Gambira was involved in coordinating between the Sangha and laypeople in Yangon and Mandalay.
They were presented with an opportunity when the government dramatically increased fuel prices in August 2007 – a move that exacerbated dissatisfaction with living conditions under the military.
Tensions rose further when the authorities broke up a peaceful protest in Pakokku, Magwe Region, and injured several monks. In response, the All Burma Monks Association (ABMA) was formed on September 9 by merging four smaller monastic groups. The ABMA set a September 17 deadline for an apology from the police.
When this was not met, the following day monks began what is known as patta nikkujjana kamma, or the upending of the alms – a refusal to accept donations from military families, thus denying them merit.
This tactic, the gravest moral weapon in the Sangha’s arsenal, had been deployed on just a handful of occasions in recent history: against the British, against the communists, and once when three monks were killed while protesting the imprisonment of five of their counterparts for inciting violence against Muslims near Mandalay.
The date chosen for invoking patta nikkujjana kamma was September 18, a date imbued with numerological significance. In 1988, the 8888 Uprising (which began on the also-numerologically significant 8th of August 1988) was ultimately put down by a brutal military response, followed by a coup on September 18 of that year. Gambira told me that it was believed the former dictator's favourite number was 9 — indeed, the demonetisation of the currency in '88 made all notes divisible by 9.
"They had one '9'," he said. "But we had three."
September 18, 2007 = September (9th month) 18 (1+8=9), 2007 (2+0+0+7=9) = 999
The monks continued with their peaceful protests, demonstrations that were broadcast around the globe. The world then watched as the military launched a brutal crackdown, imprisoning many of the movement’s organisers. Gambira went into hiding.
On November 4, 2007, the Washington Post ran an editorial Gambira had penned on snack wrappers by the light of a fire while lying low in the jungle. He says this was taken to the border by a runner, who he thinks read it down a phone line to someone who forwarded it to the newspaper for publication.
“Burma’s Saffron Revolution is just beginning,” he wrote. “The regime’s use of mass arrests, murder, torture and imprisonment has failed to extinguish our desire for the freedom that was stolen from us so many years ago. We have taken their best punch. Now it is the generals who must fear the consequences of their actions. We adhere to nonviolence, but our spine is made of steel. There is no turning back. It matters little if my life or the lives of colleagues should be sacrificed on this journey. Others will fill our sandals, and more will join and follow.”
The day the article went to print, Gambira was lying low with his father and two colleagues in a town between Mandalay and Meiktila. They were surrounded by police and military officials in cars and on motorbikes. He, his father and colleagues were taken to separate locations. The next 11 days were marked by light and sleep deprivation, as well as severe beatings and intense interrogation.
On November 20, 2008, Gambira received a 68-years sentence for a litany of offences under the Penal Code. Exactly what each of these charges were, though, he still cannot recall.
After 11 days at the interrogation facility – an army camp somewhere near Mandalay – he was sent to Insein Prison. He then did stints at Oboe Prison in Mandalay, Hkamti and Kalay prisons in Sagaing Region and finally Myaungmya Prison in Ayeyarwady Region.
Four years, two months, five prisons:
November 4, 2007: Arrest and interrogation at army camp for 11 days
Insein Prison: November 13, 2007-December 10, 2008
Oboe Prison: December 11, 2008-
January 3, 2009
Khamti Prison: January 4, 2009-May 12, 2009
Kalay Prison: May 13, 2009-November 16, 2011
Myaungmya Prison: November 18, 2011-January 13, 2012
never give up, never surrender
Gambira counts Khamti Prison, on the upper reaches of the Chindwin River in remote Sagaing Region, as the worst.
Here he carved a sentence on the wall of his 8-by-10-foot cell for the next prisoner to read. It had to be relatively short because of the difficulty scratching letters into concrete. He went with, “Life has not any formula. Never surrender, never give up.”
When he had the use of his hands, he would also etch days on the wall to mark the passing of time.
“In prison a second is really long. Now we can talk about a month, a year ... One second in prison is a very long time. But you feel your blood and you know you’re alive.”
While he might suffer lapses in memory today due to his PTSD, Gambira is remarkably sharp on the details of his time in prison, rattling off dates with ease.
His incarceration was marked by a long list of abuses, including solitary confinement, light and sleep deprivation, round-the-clock music torture, and extended periods in poun-zans, or stress positions. He was subjected to severe beatings that would inflict serious head injuries and leave him unconscious.
For a three-month stretch in Kalay, his hands were bound behind his back with steel handcuffs and his feet were also shackled. He was fed and washed by other prisoners who were common criminals.
Then there was the healthcare, or lack thereof. A 2005 report by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) on conditions in Myanmar’s prisons described the level of care as so bad that it may constitute “torture and not just ill treatment”. For Gambira, this meant a case of malaria that went untreated and, according to his doctors, may have been cerebral – a potentially life-threatening form of the disease.
“IN PRISON, A SECOND IS A REALLY LONG TIME. NOW WE CAN TALK ABOUT
A MONTH, A YEAR... ONE SECOND IN PRISON IS A VERY LONG TIME.
BUT YOU FEEL YOUR BLOOD,
AND YOU KNOW YOU'RE ALIVE."
During the four years and two months he was detained, the only book he managed to lay his hands on was a copy of the Bible, where one paragraph in English would be followed by its Burmese translation. Luke 6:31 became one of his favourite verses: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
The food was particularly grim. Prisoners had a joke about the rice, which contained a lot of sand. This would wear down the teeth if they tried to chew it. As such, they were faced with a choice: to waste time picking out individual grains – a process they called ywe kauk pwe, or "election" (a play on words, as ywe kye pwe means “selection”) – or to just swallow it.
The prison guards sometimes seemed reluctant to carry out abuses because of his former status as a monk. Occasionally they would quietly say, “Sorry, saya,” and explain they were acting on orders.
Even in prison, Gambira caused something of a headache for the authorities. He undertook three hunger strikes: for five days, four days and – the longest – 11 days. These, he said, were in response to the appalling conditions prisoners are forced to endure, including the near-total lack of healthcare, abysmal food and deliberate restrictions placed on communication with their families by virtue of being placed in far-flung facilities.
Many former political prisoners have suffered ill-health as a result of the conditions they endured inside. Hypertension and gastric issues brought about by a poor diet, respiratory problems, malaria and heart conditions are all common.
Less is said about mental health illnesses, perhaps in part because services in Myanmar fall desperately short of what is needed. There’s also stigma attached to those who suffer psychological problems. This is something Gambira says is important to get out into the open.
Some help has been made available for former political prisoners through the US Endowment for Democracy, with funding channelled through the AAPP. Its in-country program for treating victims of torture began in 2013 and now has 24 counsellors treating more than 300 people in Yangon and Mandalay. It remains unclear why or how Gambira slipped through the cracks.
Gambira didn’t believe the prison commander who informed him he was to be released. It was something he’d been told many times before as a cruel joke. The commander had to say the words about half a dozen times before they began to sink in. At 6pm on January 13, 2012, the gates opened and he walked out of Maungmya Prison in the blue fatigues of an inmate – now, at least theoretically, a free man.
He quickly returned the Sangha, donning the robes that he’d been stripped of upon arrest. He also returned to political activism, visiting IDP camps on the China border in February 2012. Upon returning to Yangon from Kachin State, he was questioned by the authorities.
In November 2012, Gambira was trotted out as a guest of honour at Yangon University when President Obama delivered an address during his visit. Afterward, they shook hands.
Two weeks later, Gambira was detained again by the authorities, this time on break-and-enter charges. He dismisses these casually: Yes, they closed some of the monasteries, so I broke in. He was arrested and detained five times after his release from prison, but only three of these were ever reported in the media, he says.
Life in Myanmar had become untenable. Former colleagues had fled; others shut him out under pressure from the authorities. People would be questioned after he visited them, and he had trouble finding a doctor who would agree to see him.
Struggling to deal with his PTSD and still very much on the authorities’ radar, Gambira voluntarily left the Sangha in mid-2013. This was followed by a brief marriage to an Australian citizen, with whom he remains friends.
It had become clear he needed help. In mid-2013 Gambira caught a bus to the Thai border and then continued on to Chiang Mai, where he’s been focusing full-time on his recovery.
This has included surgery on his sinuses to remove two pre-cancerous growths, which are thought to have been exacerbating his headaches.
“WHAT ROBERT FROST MEANS IS, THE FOREST —
IT IS DEATH...
WE DON'T NEED TO BE SUFFERING.
IN PRISON, I WOULD THINK ABOUT THE WOODS OFTEN. BUT I KNOW I HAVE MILES TO GO BEFORE I SLEEP."
He busies himself with his therapy sessions. He has enrolled in an English course and closely follows news from Myanmar. He is even teaching himself to play the guitar. He writes music that he describes as “interfaith blues”.
Religious conflict is an issue that regularly peppers his conversations. Gambira talks about Islamophobia as though it’s a disease – one he admits infected him as a monk in his early 20s, but from which he managed to recover.
“My father explained about Islamophobia. He said, ‘My son, your mindset is wrong. You are a monk. You should not think like this. It is against the teachings of Buddha.’ He compared between Buddhism and Islam, and Christianity and Hinduism and Shintoism and Taoism, Confucianism, existentialism … We are all human beings. Myanmar people need to change their mindset.”
Not everybody appreciates this sentiment. Gambira has received a large number of abusive and threatening emails since his release from prison for statements he has made on controversial topics, such as the treatment of the Rohingya in Rakhine State and the spread of anti-Muslim sentiment.
Initially, he would write back and say, “You need to change your mindset. This [hatred] is not the Buddhist way.” Now he just ignores them.
He hopes to return to Myanmar and wants to be a monk again. Asked if he thinks this will be possible, he pauses for a moment before responding, “Maybe, in six years.”
During Gambira’s darkest days in prison, he often contemplated suicide. It seemed appealing: the easy option in the face of such terrible and hopeless conditions. Indeed, many succumbed.
Some lines of poetry, which he first read in his early 20s, would run through his mind. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” he says, reciting from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.
“What Robert Frost means is, the forest – it is death. He means it is very attractive, easy. We don’t need to be suffering; he means that when we die there is no pain. But he cannot go into the forest because he has more to do. He has ‘promises to keep’.”
“In prison I would think about [the woods] often,” he says. “But I know I have ‘miles to go before I sleep’.”