Seven years after Saffron, an activist’s struggle continues
- By Kayleigh Long | Monday, 03 November 2014
Page 1 of 2A key figure in the protests that engulfed Myanmar in September 2007, Gambira spent four years and two months behind bars – and was brutally tortured by his captors – before being released from prison in a January 2012 amnesty. Having once taken on the military regime, Gambira is now engaged in a new battle: overcoming post-traumatic stress disorder that stems from his time in prison, writes Kayleigh Long.
Gambira (right) talks with therapist Dr Rory Magee at The Cabin in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. Photo: Supplied
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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. It helps him sleep.
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 told The Myanmar Times during a recent interview in 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. One of the hardest aspects of transitioning to lay life, he says, was adjusting to the informal tone of conversation.
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 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 three months, 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.
Life at The Cabin
In mid-2014, Gambira became an outpatient at The Cabin, a high-end rehabilitation facility on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. At US$13,000 a month, The Cabin’s 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 at The Cabin is a regular schedule of yoga, mindfulness meditation and eye movement directional reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, overseen by his therapist, Rory Magee.
credit :Myanmar Times.