Burma’s Charlie Chaplin Picks Up Where He Left Off Skip to main content

Burma’s Charlie Chaplin Picks Up Where He Left Off

Burmese popular comedian and social activist Zarganar speaks on a cellphone as he talks to media at his house in Rangoon. (Photo: AP)
After being released on Wednesday from the remote Myitkyina Prison in northern Burma, the comedian cum activist known as Zarganar was put on a flight back to Rangoon. Within minutes after his arrival at the airport, he was lampooning President Thein Sein’s new “reformist” initiatives, describing them as the equivalent of “applying make-up to a paralyzed old woman and sending her out into the street.”
Described as “Burma’s Charlie Chaplin” by well-known journalist Ludu Sein Win, for more than two decades Zarganar has humorously expressed the opinions and feelings that the Burmese people so badly want to express, but dare not for fear of arrest and retribution at the hands of their “Big Brother” government. His satires are as sharp as swords and puns are as swift as arrows, but even while cracking jokes, Zarganar is laughing with tear-filled eyes on behalf of his people.

 The 50-year-old Zarganar, whose real name is Thura, was one of 200 political prisoners released by the Burmese government on Wednesday as part of an amnesty granted to more than 6,000 prisoners. He has previously been arrested and either detained or imprisoned four times, and his latest term behind bars was a clear case of payback by the previous military regime for his public criticisms of their tardy and inadequate relief efforts in the wake of the devastating Cyclone Nargis.

When Burma’s state-run media claimed that the cyclone victims in the Irrawaddy Delta could eke out their survival on frogs and water-greens culled from their immediate environment, Zarganar said sarcastically that the people could also survive on the limbs of the dead human bodies floating in the water.

Shortly afterwards, the comedian activist was arrested on charges of violating the Electronics Act, for communicating by e-mail with exiled political dissidents, and the Video Act, for possessing uncensored video footage of Cyclone Nargis. After initially sentencing Zarganar to 59 years in prison, the regime “magnanimously” reduced the sentence to a mere 35 years.

In an interview with the Yangon Press International, a Facebook newsgroup, Zarganar recalled how the presiding judge and prosecutor who sent him to decades in prison for engaging in unlawful online communications knew nothing about the Internet. 

“The government prosecutor asked me to give my e-mail account,” Zarganar said. “When I told her my account was …@gmail.com, she said she was asking for my ‘e-mail’ account, not my ‘Gmail’ account.”
The judge later asked Zarganar where he conducted his communications with exiled activists such as Moe Thee Zun and Aung Din. In response, Zarganar explained that he would chat with the dissidents on Meebo, an instant social networking service that was widely used in Burma at the time because Gmail was banned.
In Burmese, however, the word “chat” means cooking and “meebo” means fire stove, so when Zarganar told the IT-clueless judge he would chat with the activists using Meebo, the judge thought the comedian was having fun at the court’s expense by saying he would cook with the activists over a wood stove.
“I explained that Meebo was an Internet social networking platform, but the judge could not understand what I was saying and got angry,” Zarganar said. “So how can the kind of judge who has never used the computer hand down such sentences?”

Zarganar’s first arrest came after the mass uprising in 1988. He was known to have been roughly interrogated, and there was speculation that the regime had used pliers to pull out his teeth, an excruciating form of torture. But in 1989, the comedian appeared on stage and defiantly joked about his plight: “It’s not true that my teeth were extracted … here they are!” he exclaimed, and then pulled a set of dentures from his mouth.

The junta generals, however, were not laughing. A year later, Zarganar was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for impersonating Gen Saw Maung in front of thousands of fans. After being released, he was banned from performing in public, but couldn’t stop making jokes at the expense of the humorless generals—he turned to writing scripts for his fellow comedians and eventually became the recipient of the Lillian Hellman and Dashiel Hammett Award, given by the Fund for Free Expression.

In 2007, Zarganar was once again arrested, this time for offering alms to the protesting Buddhist monks during the Saffron Revolution in 2007.

“If it is wrong as a Buddhist to offer alms to monks, then I will convert to Islam today,” he said.


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