Friday, May 13, 2011


Gregory V. Boulware

Difference is as difference does... Would you have the government control you for saying something they don't approve of? Is the First Amendment protecting you and yours? Does the First Amendment apply to you and me? How does our civilized, democratic society stack up to those who do crack down on the right to speak... privately or publicly? Would you live outside of the United States? How about the expectancy of receiving human rights and/or freedom and freedom of speech with the right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (Justice for All) - in a country not of America?

Can one find humor in oppression?

Meet Mr. Maung "Tweezers" Thura, a popular comedian. Zarganar is serving a 35-year prison sentence for leading a movement that collected money and supplies for the survivors of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma (Myanmar) on May 2nd and 3rd, 2008. Zarganar (aged 49) was arrested on 4 June 2008, after he criticized the government's handling of the cyclone relief situation in interviews with foreign journalists. Zarganar, who joined the 1988 uprising against military rule, has been arrested before for his pro-democracy efforts.

"George Bush, then President of the U.S., Hu Jin Tao, China's President, and Than Shue, Myanmar's Military leader went to visit God, Zarganar emailed a friend just after 9 o'clock; just before the crackdown on the evening of September twenty-fifth. Bush asked God, when will the US become the most powerful nation in the world?" God replied, "Not in your life," driving Bush to tears. Hu then asked when China would become the richest nation in the world, which drew the same "Not in your life" answer from God. Tears flowed from his eyes."

The third ruler asked when his country would have enough water and electricity. This time, according to Christopher Rhoads of the Wall Street Journal, 10.18.07, it was God who broke into tears, saying "Not in My Life!"
Maung Thura has been a painful thorn in the ass of the military dictatorship ruling the Southeastern Asian Country of Burma for more than four decades. He is known to be a best-known dissident (the disagreeing; contentious; to sit apart, to disagree). Noting the fact many of Myanmar's prominent dissidents are often scientists or writers, although the most famous is a comic.

Andrew Harding, a journalist, reflects on his friendship with Burmese comedian Zarganar who, despite repeated imprisonment, continues to make jokes about the country's military rule.

Zarganar (Burmese: also pronounced Zargana; born 27 January 1961) is a popular Burmese comedian, film actor, and a film director as well as a fierce critic and frequent political prisoner of the Burmese military government. Known for his wicked puns against the government, Zarganar, whose name translates to "tweezers", is widely considered to be the most popular comedian and satirist in Myanmar.
It has been an unusually busy few weeks in the Burmese gulag. A sudden flurry of show-trials, a brisk and generous apportioning of life sentences, and now the prison vans has begun scattering the guilty into the quietest corners of an isolated country. The convicts names are probably unfamiliar to you. The authorities would be happy to keep it that way. Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Nilar Thein, Zarganar, the list goes on. Like their more famous colleague, Aung San Suu Kyi, these are Burma's bravest and brightest, devoured by their own government.

"Over the past four years living Asia, I have been lucky enough to meet and befriend a handful of these criminals, says Harding."

Given a choice of stage names, while entertaining at a party, he chose the name 'Tweezers.' The party was held at the dental school he once attended. His dental studies took a back seat to the stage of comedy and the performing arts. This occurred during the early 1980s. The name 'Tweezers,' came from his array of dental tools. Several name choices were derived from the inclusion of the troupe he and his friends called 'Gangaw Grove' - he chose 'Tweezers' as opposed to a pair of pliers, chewing gum, and tweezers. Tweezers made no sense since they were not used in dentistry. One item that baffled me was the inclusion of chewing gum. Is chewing gum used in the practice of dentistry? The troupe took on socio-economical-politico issues during their performances.

Zarganar was awarded the Lillian Hellman and Dashiel Hammett Award, given by the Fund for Free Expression; a committee organized by New York based Human Rights Watch. In October 2008, Zarganar was awarded One Humanity Award by PEN Canada of which he is an honorary member.

In 2006, Zarganar began running afoul of Myanmar's political military regime, again. Involved in film the government banned, he was also banned from performing as well. He was the director of a film titled 'Running Out of Patience.' Zarganar gave a British Broadcasting Corporation an interview. During the interview he criticized governmental regulations of Myanmar (Burma). He cited, during the interview session, how imposed regulations affected the country's annual water festival. He raised awareness to the government's disallowed traditional elements involving portions devoted to performances that touched on Myanmar's current events. Zarganar added, "Government cronies were allowed to sell liquor at the events - but yet water was a controlled substance.

Huh... what's that about?

Once, at about two in the morning, Zarganar was arrested. Relatives, friends, and colleagues didn't hear a thing. His condition or whereabouts weren't known for about three weeks. In the 1990s, he had been jailed for four years. It was the cost for participating with, supporting, or becoming a dissident. The crackdown on activity gave many cause to worry. His family and friends wondered, "If this country allows the practice of Sacred Monks being accosted and physically abused, what would happen to an irritating comedian?" Mar Oo, his wife, warned him to hide. "While you remain in Burma, your life is in danger!" She called him from Los Angeles, reported Rhoads. He replied to his wife, "I have nothing to hide... they'd recognize me with my bald head - they'd recognize me right away. There's no point in running." His disappearance took place not long after the telephone conversation. He was released after the three week vanishing act.

Zarganar was taken to at least four different prison locations. During the imprisonment he was continually transferred for further intense and extensive interrogation. He told three people of his misadventure(s). He told them the interrogation usually occurred through the nighttime hours. The people who spoke to him said he sounded tired. Even so, he was right back to telling jokes.

"At least every country has a success story that is told,"Zarganar jokingly stated during a past performance. In conttinuous stride, he said "Some like to boast about a citizen with no hands who can still write, or another with no legs who can still run - but there's no country like Burma," while smiling. "Here we have generals able to rule a country for forty years with no brains."

It was the mid 1980s when he started performing on national television. He managed to gain a wide following. One might not be surprised to know, he also caught the attention of the government - run by General Ne Win. Zarganar continued to use satire as a tool in order to focus on Myanmar's ills. The lack of adequate water, powered utilities, and education are just a few inadequacies mentioned. His friends and student, Maung Yit said, "People are saying any joke about the regime must be a Zarganar joke," even if it wasn't.

In 1988, he was made a leader of the student movement. There was a major uprising. Human rights groups estimated three thousand deaths occurred during an ensuing crackdown. Zarganar once again found himself locked up just before the1990 election. He was charged with delivering political speeches for his mother. She was running for a seat in Parliament. He got a five-year sentence. He did four. Peace Prize Laureate, Aung San Suu, who led the political opposition, won the election by a landslide - the military took power again instead.

When Tweezers got out of prison, he was allowed to once again perform to audiences. He raised awareness of Aids among other social issues by participating in videos and other social media. When he and 'Running Out of Patience' was banned, it meant he could not perform publicly. The year was 2007. He was criticized by the country's state-run newspaper, 'The New Light of Myanmar,' for inciting public violence and unrest. Zarganar denied the charge. The paper said the participation of Maung Thura in a debate at Yangon Province operated by the United States Embassy, prompted the unruly demonstration.

In November 2008, he was sentenced to 59 years in prison, convicted of "public order offenses", under four sections of the criminal code-17/2, 32 (b), 295 (a) and 505 (b), much more than the anticipated maximum of two years. On 16 February 2009, following the appeals by the family, Yangon Divisional Court reduced the prison sentence by "up to 24 years", bringing the sentence down to 35 years. Since December 2008, Zarganar has been incarcerated at Myitkyina Prison in Kachin State in the country's far north.

In spite of the ban, Tweezers' jokes continued to circulate. They began to appear on Burmese exile websites - operated by the United States, says Rhoads' report. One of the jokes referred to General Than Shwe's daughter. She gave birth right after she got married. The joke said, "In other countries, instant noodles and instant coffee are popular - only in Burma are there instant babies."

Mid August sparked demonstrations in Myanmar with the increase in fuel prices. The marches were led by Sacred Monks. Showing their support were several celebrities. Two days before the crackdown, Zarganar brought water for the monks and members of the movement. Just prior to Tweezer's arrest by the government authorities, he got a telephone call from a friend who is a graphic artist and fellow comedian. Myo Thein Hiun asked Tweezers, "What the hell are you doing at home, you know they're coming for you?" Zarganar replied, "I'm not afraid of them... let them arrest me. We have to stand up for what's right for the Monks - for Our People!" Hiun asked, "What are you going to do?" Zarganar answered, "I'm going to write some more jokes."

Do we in America allow our government to oppress us, disrespect us, detect us, delete us, or to protect us? When we in America elect our government officials... do we control them or do they control us?
Do you really think they give a damn?

I wonder...

Til next time...

Source acknowledgments:
In Myanmar, The Dissident as Comedian – ‘Zarganar’ kept joking until they threw him in prison; what makes God Cry, Christopher Rhoads, Wall Street Journal 10.18.07.
Wikipedia, Hla Kyi (who went by the pen name of Yuwaddy Kyi Oo) and Aung Thein (pen name: Nan Nyunt Swe) and Yahoo Web Search.
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