When Unite member U Uttara was invited by the minister of health in Burma to set up a hospital and prison chaplaincy service there, he did not expect to be arrested at 2 am in the morning, dis-robed as a Buddhist priest, and thrown into the very prison he was meant to be helping.
U Uttara, a leading member of Britain’s Buddhist community is caught up in charges his lawyers say are not even legal.
Uttara, who is currently on leave from Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital chaplaincy service, has now been released from Insein prison, described by human rights activists as “notorious even by Burmese standards”.
Currently on bail, he is facing a prison sentence if found guilty.
In Burma – also known as Myanmar and until recently an international pariah state – few things are quite as they seem. The charges against Uttara and four other monks relate to what amounts to a dispute over the ownership of the Maha Than Ti Thukha monastery.
Last year the government handed the monastery back to Uttara’s order of monks – who had built it – despite protests from government-backed monks.
Uttara and his colleagues were acting as short-term caretakers after the Burmese government invited him back and paid for him to set up a multi-faith prison and chaplaincy service.
Uttara and his colleagues may have simply been in the right place at the wrong time. Without any warning at 2 am on June 10 this year the monastery was stormed by a collection of 400 government-backed rival priests and local police militia.
They demanded that Uttara and his fellow monks sign over the monastery to them. When this was refused they were arrested.
Taken to Ta-mwe police station they were dis-robed as monks, formally charged and sent to prison awaiting trial. It’s difficult to separate what may be a dispute with rival monks from what has happened in Burma for the last 24 years and Uttara’s role in it.
Uttara was granted political asylum in Britain when he fled Burma after a failed attempt to topple the vicious military junta which ruled Burma since 1990.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy had won those elections by a landslide. The military refused to let her or her party take office.
She was charged – it still isn’t clear with what – and placed under house arrest for 15 out of the next 20 years. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, she was eventually released shortly after the 2010 elections from which she was barred.
Uttara was one of the most active and high profile campaigners calling for her release and for the return of democracy in Burma. He had spoken at the United Nations and pressed the case personally with President Obama, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.
The monks in his order are prominent human rights campaigners. The 2010 Burmese elections were heavily criticised as a sham, but they are heralded as the first move from military to civilian leadership.
Civilian in the following sense: General Thein Sein took off his uniform, put on a suit and became President Thein Sein.
Civilian also in the following sense: A quarter of all seats in the parliament are reserved for the military and four key cabinet posts are reserved for serving generals.
The president’s promise to free all political prisoners by the end of 2013 has not been met. Human rights campaigners claim the number of political prisoners may have doubled.
These are not the only concerns of the international community. The Burmese army has been accused of using rape and sexual violence and there remain warnings of potential genocide.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Burma, called for the UN to set up a formal inquiry into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Since the formation of the military-led “civilian” government in 2010, he says, “systematic militarization contributes to human-rights abuses. These abuses include land confiscation, forced labor, internal displacement, extrajudicial killings, and sexual violence.
“They are widespread. They continue today. And, they remain essentially unaddressed by the authorities.” Uttara’s supporters in the UK are concerned about his treatment and what may lie ahead, although he has now been re-robed as a priest.
Reverend Mia Hilborn, one of his colleagues at Guy’s and St Thomas’ described Uttara as “fearless” in the fight for human rights.
“Uttara is a national hero in Burmese folklore. He and his order of monks are very, very popular and there have been demonstrations in support of him and the monks charged with him.
“U Panasara, who is also charged, trained at Guy’s and St Thomas’ chaplaincy service, as a chaplaincy volunteer. The more political pressure there is, the more likely the charges will be dropped, they are sensitive to international pressure.
“We’re concerned Uttara will face the same ordeal as Suu Kyi. She was held in a legal limbo over 15 years, her case was never resolved and she was freed after international pressure.”
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail has led the Unite campaign to free Uttara, Panasara and their fellow monks.
She said, “The charges are baseless and illegal under Burmese law – they should be dropped immediately by the authorities.
“The Burmese government needs to prove that it is making good progress to creating a country where the human rights of all sections of society are respected.”
- If you would like to help, please write protesting the treatment of Uttara and his colleagues and calling for the illegal charges to be dropped to:
Mr Thein Sein
President of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar
Embassy of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, London
19a Charles Street
London W1J 5DX
The Rt Hon David Cameron MP
10 Downing Street
London SW1A 2AA