The prime minister has been urged to intervene with the Burmese government to secure the release of a Buddhist working at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital (GSTT) and four other monks.
U Uttara, the Buddhist chaplain and multi-faith joint lead at a hospital in London and four other monks, including U Panasara, who has leave to remain in the UK, have been caught in a legal limbo since June when they were arrested on ‘baseless’ charges.
U Uttara, a British citizen, is a member of the College of Health Care Chaplains (CHCC), a professional health section of Unite, the country’s largest union. The union believes that the monks are victims of religious in-fighting between rival monks in the volatile country, only recently emerging from decades of military dictatorship.
The president of the CHCC, Revd Mark Burleigh has now written to David Cameron asking him intervene saying : “U Uttara had been invited and funded by the Burmese government to set up multi-faith hospital and prison chaplaincy services in Rangoon and Mandalay. He had been granted a career break from GSTT to do this work.
“U Panasara has leave to remain in the UK, and has trained as a chaplaincy volunteer at Guy's and St Thomas'.”
The monks were bailed in Rangoon in June on charges that Unite understands allege religious defamation of the law and 'malicious insulting religious belief'. They face two years in jail, if convicted. Since then, they have been attending bail hearings every fortnight.
Revd Burleigh said: “According to their legal team, the whole process has been illegal according to the laws of Myanmar.
“Please would you and your government make contact with the Burmese government at the highest level to help secure the speedy release of U Uttara and the other monks.”
U Uttara, who started working at GSTT as a trainee chaplain in 2004, went to Myanmar (Burma) at the request of the country’s minister for health and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi to set up the multi-faith chaplaincy services.
Unite head of health Rachael Maskell said: “We don’t want the case of U Uttara, who is our member, and the four other monks to be forgotten. At present, they appear to be caught in a slow-moving legal limbo land, hence the letter asking David Cameron to intervene.
“Their legal team say the charges are baseless and have no foundation in Burmese law.
“U Uttara is highly respected for his chaplaincy at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital and was asked to help set up multi-faith chaplaincy service by the Burmese government and pro-democracy champion Aung Sang Suu Kyi. The chaplaincy services were to cover Buddhist, Muslim and Christian faiths.
“The Burmese government needs to prove that it is making good progress in creating a country where the human rights of all sections of society are respected.
“It should adhere to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, particularly Article 18 which places great emphasis on religious freedom.”
For further information please contact Unite senior communications officer Shaun Noble on 07768 693940 and/or the Unite press office on 020 3371 2065.
Notes for news desks:
U Uttara was accompanied by U Panasara who was trained as a chaplaincy volunteer at GSTT. Uttara had to flee Burma years ago when he was threatened with imprisonment, torture and potentially death. He gained asylum in the UK and is now a UK citizen. Panasara has right to remain in the UK, but is a Burmese passport holder.
Both have been staying in a monastery in Rangoon, run by their order of monks. A previous regime gave the land to the order, who then, under the leadership of Penang Sayadaw, built a large monastery.
He then left the country and asked another group of monks to look after it in his absence. The second group were 'government monks'.
On his return, they refused to give the monastery back; Penang went to court and got the monastery back last year. Penang left the country earlier this month on a lecture tour and Uttara was asked to look after the monastery.
On Tuesday 10 June, there was a curfew in Rangoon. At midnight between 4-5,000 people surrounded the monastery, including more than 250 government monks. The 32 laypeople and 20 monks inside were taken away, given a lecture and asked to sign a form saying the monastery belonged to the government-backed group. Uttara and Panasara and three other monks refused to sign and were arrested as monks.
The next day they were stripped (disrobed) as monks and were rearrested as civilians and sent to the notorious Insein Prison in Rangoon.
The British consulate finally had a visit agreed on 17 June. The consulate official was able to bring in medication as Uttara is a diabetic and demanded that he was seen by the prison doctor. On 20 June the monks were bailed, and were re-ordained as monks.
Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union with over 1.4 million members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.