Free expression in Burma

This week members of the Free Zargana Campaign meet the Burmese comedian and performance poet at the Free Word Centre in London.  The consortium of human rights and freedom of expression advocates, including PEN, Index on Censorship and Article 19, had campaigned for the Zargana’s release since 2008 when he was imprisoned on a series of trumped-up charges following his outspoken criticism of the government’s response to Cyclone Nargis.
Zargana has been relentlessly persecuted by Burma’s ruling generals. He was first arrested in October 1988 and held for six months after making fun of the government. Two years later he was detained again after impersonating General Saw Maung, former head of the military government, in front of a crowd of thousands at a Teacher’s Training College in Rangoon. This time he was sentenced to five years in prison. Held in solitary confinement in a tiny cell, Zargana began to write poetry. Forbidden to read and write in prison, he was forced to scratch his poems on the floor of his cell using a piece of pottery before committing them to memory.  Following his release in March 1994, Zargana was banned from performing in public, but continued to make tapes and videos which were strictly censored by the authorities.

In 1996, after speaking out against censorship to a foreign journalist, he was banned from performing his work altogether, and denied the freedom to write and publish. Undeterred, Zargana continued to spread his jokes and poetry by word of mouth, until his re-arrest on 25 September 2007 for his support of the monks demonstrating in Rangoon. This time, Zargana’s notoriety and a mass of international appeals helped to secure his release a month later.

In May 2008, Cyclone Nargis, caused tens of thousands of deaths and left hundreds of thousands more homeless in the Irrawaddy Delta. The regime was slow to react and refused offers of help from certain quarters, apparently indulging paranoid fears that the West might somehow engender a revolt whilst administering aid.

After Zargana led a private effort to deliver aid to cyclone victims, police raided his home in Yangon on 4 June 2008 and he was arrested once again.  Initially no reason was given for his detention but it was widely believed that he was held as a punishment for ridiculing state media reports in the cyclone’s aftermath and his criticism of the regime’s response to the disaster. It wasn’t until 14 August 2008 that Zargana was charged with ‘defiling a place of worship with intent to insult the religion’. During the hearing, the prosecutor submitted photographs of Zargana which, it was claimed, demonstrated his disaffection towards the state and government. The prosecution also submitted transcripts of interviews he had given to the BBC and Voice of America. In November the same year and he was sentenced to forty-five years in prison.

Zargana was the subject of Rex Bloomstein’s documentary, This Prison Where I Live, which helped to raise his profile abroad. On 12 October last year, the Burmese government finally released Zargana, together with approximately 120 other political prisoners. His first visit to Britain follows Aung San Suu Kyi’s first trip abroad in twenty-four years.

Despite these hopeful signs that the new civilian government are receptive to change, hundreds of political prisoners remain in prison in Burma. Lobby groups, like Human Rights Watch, point out that the government continues to persecute the various ethnic and religious minorities in Kachin and other states – human rights abuses include rape, torture, forced labour and the destruction of villages and homes. Suu Kyi has also advised caution against what she called “reckless optimism” in Burma’s reform process, claiming that the military is still a force “to be reckoned with.” Only by continuing to press for widespread reforms, including the release of political prisoners and an independent judiciary, can the international community support Burma on the road to democracy.

Originally published by the Independent arts blog 5 June 2012