Abbot Ashin Wayponela, aka Win Tin of Shwebonetha monastery in Mandalay, was released from Yamethin Prison under the recent amnesty. He was arrested in connection with a communal riot case between Buddhists and Islamists in Taungoo and received a 22-year prison term; he served more than 10 ½ years in Taungoo, Mandalay and Yamethin prisons. Mizzima reporter Ko Wild interviewed him on his prison experience and his future plans.
Question: How many monks and laymen were released with you?
Answer: A total of six prisoners were released from our prison. They are Ashin Thawbita, aka Thein Htike Soe; Ashin Thuwunna, aka Han Soe; Ashin Gawthita, aka Han Myint; Kaung Kaung, aka Zaw Myint; and Pho Thaung, aka Hla Myint.
Q: What is your monastery and please tell us your age and monkhood?
A: I am the Abbot of Shwebonetha monastery of Ashoka Yama Tike, Chanmyathasi Township, Mandalay Region, at the southern entrance of Phayagyi. I am 48, and I have 17 years in the monkhood.
Q: In which prisons did you serve and how many years?
A: I served a total 10 years 7 months and 16 days in prisons. First, I served in Taungoo Prison for about five months and then I was shifted to Mandalay Prison where I stayed only two days. Then I was transferred to Yamethin Prison on October 25, 2001. I was given a total of 22 years in prison.
Q: You were imprisoned in connection with a religious riot case. Please tell us about your case.
A: In this Taungoo riot incident, I was in Myo Hla, north of Taungoo. Then I was involved in a case in Myo Hla. This incident was a religious riot between Islamist Indians and Buddhists that took place in May 2001. The incident was triggered by a quarrel between novices and Islamist in the area and then it spread to other areas too. A disciple who supported me lived in Myo Hla, and I went there to meet them and to worship with them.
Q: Please tell us about the incident. How did you get involved?
A: There was no demonstration in this incident. They destroyed houses and threw stones at each other and it was just a riot. I just attended a meeting after this incident.
Q: How were you were arrested?
A: They didn’t arrest me at first. They arrested only my disciple from Myo Hla. Then I visited the intelligence office in Taungoo and surrendered myself on May 25, 2001. This was the No. 3 Intelligence Battalion in Taungoo.
Q: What happened next?
A: They interrogated me there, just questioning, nothing happened to me.
Q: How did they disrobe you?
A: They disrobed me in Taungoo military camp but not at the MI (3) office. There was a detachment interrogation center there at that time. They called this centre the old regional command HQ. They disrobed me on May 27, 2001, at the interrogation centre. They ordered me to renounce my monkhood too, but they couldn’t do this by order as per our Buddhist cannon law. They called in an Abbot, and he told me that and I was fully aware of our Buddhist cannon law.
Q: Where were you when were transferred after interrogation and where did you stand trial?
A: I spent only two days in the interrogation centre and then I was sent to Taungoo Prison. The trial was in Taungoo Prison. We were not taken outside. We stood trial in the prison because there were many groups in the prison ward where we were kept together. A judge came on the first day, and we were formally charged and on the second day he pronounced his sentence. This was a special tribunal, they said.
Q: Did the trial court sentence you alone?
A: No. There were more than 20 co-accused from the Myo Hla case alone, but I do not remember the exact number. There were over 10 accused in the Swa case and over 20 in the Kywe Bwe case and over 10 accused in the Taungoo case. I remember only the rough number.
Q: Did you get an opportunity to have a defence counsel, and on what charges and under which sections you were sentenced?
A: I couldn’t get access to a defence counsel, but they told me I could hire my lawyer if I wanted. How could I get a lawyer? I was in prison and not allowed to go outside. They refused when I asked them to hire a lawyer for me. I was charged with 5(j) of the Emergency Provisions Act and sentenced to seven years imprisonment on this charge and 10 years under section 436 and five more years under section 440 of penal code. They told me that these were mischief charges.
Q: How long did you spend in Taungoo Prison?
A: I served my prison term in Taungoo Prison from May to October 22, 2001, and then I was transferred to Yamethin Prison in Mandalay Region until I was released.
Q: How did the prison staff treat you, as a monk or as a layman?
A: They treated me as a monk because I told them that I was still in monkhood. I stayed there as a monk in accordance with our Buddhist cannon law though I wore a prisoner uniform.
Q: Did they offer you alms food as a monk?
A: No, but not in a rude manner, not so rude.
Q: Do you remember the names of Yamethin Prison superintendents? Did the treatment to you change when the superintendent of the prison changed?
A: The first prison superintendent I met there was Kan Myint; then Myint Shwe, followed by Tin Maung Cho and Khin Shwe. Yes, the form of treatment to us varied from one person to another. Anyway, the prison regulation and discipline have been eased gradually during these years. At first, they were too tight.
Q: How about your health, your reverence?
A: My health is good; I meditated in prison. I did regular walking as physical exercise too and had Vipassana discourse and practice while I was in prison. And I had my meal regularly to keep my health fit.
Q: Did you stay alone in Yamethin Prison?
A: Yes, I stayed in a secluded area in the prison. First I stayed in a prison cell with two other inmates and the last time there was only one person in my cell as the number of prisoners decreased in our prison.
Q: What about the healthcare in prison? Could you read in the prison?
A: The healthcare in the prison is not so bad but medicine supplies are limited. Yes, we could read books in the prison.
Q: How many co-accused in your Myo Hla riot case have been released?
A: I am the last in this group. I heard that those who were given 12-year prison terms were released in 2005 and those given 17-20-year term were released in October 2011.
Q: Did you get a remission given by President Thein Sein in May last year?
A: We got one-year remission from our sentence and then I got another 2 years when all prison terms over 20 years were commuted to 20 only. So I got total 3 years in remission.
Q: Were the monks released with you from Yamethin Prison co-accused in your Myo Hla case?
A: No, Ashin Thawbita and Ashin Thuwunna were involved in the Kywe Bwe case. They returned to Kywe Bwe now. Ashin Gawthita is from the Rangoon Nga Htat Gyi pagoda. He was arrested and charged with having connections with unlawful associations and other charges under Associations Act.
Q: What will you do now after your release?
A: I’ll go back to my monastery. I’ll be reordained and serve in the monkhood again. I’ll do religious work and social.
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