Burma's Zarganar Off to the US

Burma's famous dissident comedian, who said he had survived "electronic shock" torture during eight years in prison, has been allowed out of his Southeast Asian country for the first time. He is traveling to the Clinton Foundation in America -- while requesting that US economic sanctions on Burma be lifted.

The satirical Maung Thura is popularly known by his stage name Zarganar -- "Tweezers" in Burmese. He was remarkably upbeat after having emerged from his fourth stint in a Burmese prison, this latest one ending on Oct. 12 in Myitkyna Prison, 900 miles north of Rangoon, as a result of the Thein Sein government’s initial amnesty of more than 200 political prisoners. More than 1,000 political prisoners remain in custody.

Arguably one of the most famous of Burma’s long-suffering political prisoners, Zarganar is the third son of two writers. Following graduation from college and dental school, he began performing full time, forming his own comedy group and delivering satire against the Burmese junta, which was not amused. In 1988 after the junta refused to recognize the results of elections that would have brought Aung San Suu Kyi and the National Democratic League to power, he joined a pro-democracy student movement and became a leader. He was quickly jailed for six months.

As an indication of his isolation in Burma, the 50-year-old comic described his surprise at seeing Thailand’s progress.

“When I saw the airplane I got a shock!” he said. “When I saw the airport I got a shock! When I saw good roads and big bridges I got a shock! And seeing big buildings I got a shock!” he told a news conference on Dec. 19 at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok.

"This is the dawning era of our country, this is the start of change," Zarganar said, describing Burma's tentative new shift from harsh military rule towards some civilian administration and fragile political freedom.

"You should support us. Now improvement starts," he said on arriving from Burma. "This afternoon, I already met with the World Bank. They want to give some aid, or some help, some humanitarian aid. So if they lift up the sanctions, we can get many aid for our people, not for our military."

After decades of dodging sanctions by establishing economic ties with China, India, Thailand, Singapore and other friendly nations, Burma has started to allow some media freedom and political activity, while asking the US to lift its boycotts.

"Now I can say, 'I am here.' This is improvement. Many times [earlier], I didn't get a passport. I hadn't gone to any country. This is my first trip."

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy recently re-registered as a political party to run in a promised but unscheduled 2012 by-election for the Burmese Parliament, which is dominated by the military and pliant civilian politicians.

Zarganar, however, made it clear he has no intention to enter politics.

“I don’t want to go to Naypyidaw, and I don’t want to participate in the by-election,” he told the packed crowd. “Aunty is aunty, Zarganar is Zarganar,” he said in reference to Suu Kyi.

He expressed positive words for Suu Kyi, whom he met with after being freed, but said her National League for Democracy (NLD) party lacked intellectuals.

"Our country has no intellectual people in the political area. For example, in the NLD. Where are the intellectual people in the NLD?"

In 1988, during Zarganar’s first months in jail, he said, an army major "tortured me" in Insein Prison. "He beat me. He kicked me many times. He gave electronic shock to me. The second time I was arrested, in 1990, that experience was very terrible...I was in solitary confinement for five years. I had no friends. No cellmates. No paper to use as toilet paper. So I used the leaves to clean my feces.

"There was no window in my cell," he said, describing his punishment for voicing satirical political jokes. Although best known as a satirical comedian, he is also a poet, filmmaker and writer.

After a three-week jail sentence in 2007 for helping Buddhist monks stage anti-government protests, he was sentenced to 35 years for "public order offences" for cracking jokes about government mismanagement of the relief effort to aid the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which killed 140,000 people in May of 2008.

Prison conditions improved slightly during his recent stint in Myitkynia after being moved from Insein Prison, he told reporters.

"I had a chance to read a lot of books. For example, 'On China' by Kissinger," he said, referring to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's insight into China, published in May.

Zarganar plans to visit America starting on Jan. 30 and to remain for three months, during which he will "study in the Clinton Foundation," he said. He is quite likely to go on making jokes. Htein Lin, a friend for more than 20 years and a former political prisoner himself, said the comic had continued to make jokes during his confinement.

Asked who heard them, “The prison guards,” Htien Lin was quoted as saying. “Lots of them are Zarganar fans. They love him. They love his work. In fact they tell his jokes to their friends after work. That way, they’re passed on to lots of people.”

(Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978.)