When learning about the appalling experiences Zarganar has had to endure as a prisoner of conscience in Burma, it is easy to forget that he is best known in his own country as a comedian. Artist Htein Lin, a friend for more than 20 years and a former political prisoner, is keen to stress Zarganar‚Äôs sense of humour.
‚ÄúHe is still writing jokes in prison,‚ÄĚ says Htein Lin. ‚ÄúLike me, he doesn‚Äôt have any pens or paper [Htein Lin had to smuggle in or improvise painting materials during his years in jail] and so he has to remember his jokes instead.‚ÄĚ Htein Lin sounds wistful as he thinks of his old friend. ‚ÄúZarganar has an amazing memory.‚ÄĚ
But who hears Zarganar‚Äôs jokes? ‚ÄúThe prison guards. 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‚Äôre passed on to lots of people.‚ÄĚ Neither of us comments on the irony of a prison guard enjoying and sharing the very thing his prisoner is in jail for. But as the saying goes: ‚ÄúThis is Burma.‚ÄĚ
Zarganar only has two members of his family remaining in Burma who are authorized to visit him, his brother and his sister-in-law, and they can only visit for 15 carefully supervised minutes every fortnight after making the long an expensive trip 900 miles north of Rangoon to Myitkyina Jail. But Htein Lin says his jokes are still getting out, including some ‚Äúabout the American who swam out to see Aung San Suu Kyi‚ÄĚ. Htein Lin is referring to the bizarre incident in May 2009, when a man swam uninvited to the lakeside house where the opposition leader has been detained for 14 of the past 20 years. Her visitor was sentenced to seven years in prison, but released on humanitarian grounds and deported.
Considering that Aung San Suu Kyi had her house arrest extended by 18 months after the affair, it seems a strange thing to joke about. Yet Zarganar is entitled more than anyone to joke about the Burmese regime. His humour has proved a potent weapon, since the regime has put him in jail for 35 years to shut him up.
The actor Peter Ustinov once said: ‚ÄúComedy is simply a funny way of being serious.‚ÄĚ Htein Lin says that Zarganar, like many comic performers, is a serious person. ‚ÄúJust because he makes jokes about the authorities, doesn‚Äôt mean that he isn‚Äôt serious,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúZarganar is deadly serious about the targets of his comedy.‚ÄĚ Comedy is his skill, his vocation, and a serious weapon against oppression. Htein Lin stresses Zarganar‚Äôs courage and the inspiration he has given to other performers as well as his audience ‚Äď the Burmese people. ‚ÄúHe loves his country. He cares about the Burmese people much more than himself.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúEven when Zarganar talks about torture, it‚Äôs really funny,‚ÄĚ he says. Htein Lin remembers a comic routine where Zarganar talked about his ‚Äúbeautiful motorcycle‚ÄĚ and assumed a riding stance, sitting on the saddle, legs wide and knees bent in a semi-squatting position, with arms outstretched. He would tell his audience: ‚ÄúI‚Äôd like to give you all a motorcycle!‚ÄĚ But what‚Äôs funny about that? It seems that one of the infamous forms of torture used by the Burmese authorities is called ‚Äúthe motorcycle‚ÄĚ. The prisoner is forced to stand in the motorcycle position for four or five hours, without a rest. When they collapse, they are forced to get up and start again.
The motorcycle story is a good example of typical Burmese humour ‚Äď a form which lends itself perfectly to satirising an oppressive regime that censors all forms of criticism or debate. The Burmese language is particularly suited to wordplay. This allows people like Zarganar to tell jokes and stories which seem innocent enough, but are in fact loaded with meaning lampoon the regime.
Htein Lin gives an elaborate example. The American Senator Jim Webb, recently made a visit to Burma to experiment with engagement with the regime. Webb sounds like ‚Äėweq‚Äô, the word for ¬†‚Äúpig‚ÄĚ in Burmese. The internet is heavily censored in Burma, so dissident websites are given innocuous names. One that recently escaped the authorities‚Äô notice for some time was called ‚Äúswine flu.com‚ÄĚ in Burmese. Cue lots of swine flu and pig jokes, which subtly celebrate free speech. Layers of meaning are used to disguise subversive banter.
I ask Htein Lin a question that bothers many people outside his country. They would like to visit Burma to demonstrate solidarity with the people‚Äôs struggle. But they worry that a visit could be seen as some sort of endorsement of the regime. Worse, it would give financial support to the government. Htein Lin‚Äôs reply is unequivocal. ‚ÄúIf you were planning to visit Burma just to have fun, then I would say don‚Äôt go. But no one goes there for that reason. If you want to meet activists, talk to people ‚Äď and try to help them ‚Äď then I would definitely say go. Burmese people will welcome you. Their doors are always open.‚ÄĚ Zarganar, of course, isn‚Äôt allowed visitors. Besides, he has been moved to a remote jail, his more than 900 miles from Yangon, to increase his isolation.
Physically, Zarganar is not in good shape. No one really knows how he is coping emotionally, though we do know he is still telling jokes. As the first anniversary of his latest conviction approaches, and the remaining 34 years of his sentence stretch before him, Htein Lin wants the world to remember his friend's courage.
‚ÄúFirst I would tell him that he is not forgotten.¬† He has a lot of support from writers, film-makers, actors and citizens across the world.¬† And I would tell him to use the time to grow stronger in spirit and loving kindness, and to review his past projects and plan for his future ones.‚ÄĚ he says.
Shocking humour: A Burmese joke (by Zarganar)
Htein Lin once shared a house with Zarganar. One day they visited a teashop, run by another former political prisoner. As they drank tea, Zarganar told Htein Lin about a friend who had died. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs terrible,‚ÄĚ said Htein Lin. The teashop owner overheard. ‚ÄúPoor guy,‚ÄĚ he said, ‚Äúwhat happened?‚ÄĚ Zarganar replied: ‚ÄúHe touched a newspaper and was electrocuted.‚ÄĚ
Htein Lin fell about laughing when he told me this joke; I had to wait for him to explain. The electricity supply in Burma is notoriously unreliable. Most households manage in the evenings without electricity and sit in candlelight. Nevertheless, Burmese newspapers (all controlled by the authorities) are full of stories about the entire country having a wonderful electricity supply and propaganda celebrating fabulous, efficient new power stations being opened all the time. In other words, the closest many Burmese get to any electricity is touching a newspaper.