BANGKOK, Thailand — If pain is laughter’s key ingredient, Zarganar shall never lack for material.
At 50, Burma’s best-known comedian has endured torture, a government-imposed media blackout and eight years combined in prison for mocking the unmockable: the Southeast Asian nation’s military dictatorship.
But Zarganar’s sacrifice has brought him into the orbit of both Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma’s democracy struggle. Since his prison release in October, the comedian has met with both women, a slew of Western diplomats and even the World Bank.
The leadership in Burma (officially known as Myanmar) is attempting to shed its villainous image, having last year shifted power from an army cabal — the world’s longest running dictatorship — to a military-backed civilian party.
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Zarganar had long suffered the junta’s persecution. Stone bald and bespectacled, his baritone delivery marked by nervous laughter and darting eyes, he dared to lampoon the men in power.
He was most recently in prison for calling attention to Cyclone Nargis, the 2008 storm that killed 140,000. Zarganar was punished for cobbling together his own relief team after the junta offered little aid to victims.
Now free — and free to speak out — Zarganar is using his influence to draw attention to his pet causes: Burma’s youth and its impoverished.
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Having never left Burma — a landscape of crumbling cities and lush-but-poor countryside — he was recently granted a passport. Washington, DC, where he’s invited by the William Clinton Foundation, is among his first destinations.
Now touring Southeast Asia, Zarganar spoke to journalists in Bangkok, Thailand this month. These are his thoughts, edited for length and in stumbling English, on prison, democracy and Burma’s new era of hope.
On traveling outside Burma for the first time
When I saw the airport (in Bangkok), I got a shock. When I saw big buildings and big bridges and good roads, I got a shock. I’ve never seen those things.
Yesterday, when I saw the young man and the young woman on the road, when I saw their faces, a huge shock I got! Their faces are secure faces. They have the feeling of security, of freedom. In our country, our young people have lost confidence. Daily, they worry. Their faces are full of anxiety. It’s quite a difference.
On prison life
I was arrested and released four times. I’m very used to the iron bars. I was in solitary confinement for five years. No friend, no cellmates. No paper to use as toilet paper so I used a leaf to clean my feces. I hadn’t seen the moon. I hadn’t fresh air. This life is very rude and terrible.
On encountering a former tormenter
In 1988, I was arrested for the first time. A (retired) colonel, who was at that time a major, he tortured me. He beat me, kicked me, gave an electronic shock to me. In 2008, I met him in Myitkyina prison (where the officer had become an inmate as well).
He cried. But I smiled. I gave him my hand to shake. I can forgive him. When I was released from that prison, he cried. But I could not smile. Prison is prison. Prison is not a restaurant. Prison is not a guesthouse. I felt very sorry for him.
On reforms in Burma
It’s the start of change. Not absolute change. Everyday, we should consider the 70 percent. 70 percent are poor people ... uneducated people ... farmers. 70 percent of our people are peasants. We have to save the lives of these people.
This is ... the dawn era for our country. You should support us. Improvement has started. If they lift sanctions, we get many (aid packages) from the foreign countries. I’ve already met with the World Bank. They want to give some ... humanitarian aid. If they lift sanctions, we can get many (aid packages) for our people. Not our military.
What he read in prison
“On China” by Henry Kissinger, “Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going,” by Lee Kuan Yew, “The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World,” by Larry Diamond and several books by P.G. Wodehouse.
On declining to run for office with Burma's "Auntie," Aung San Suu Kyi
Auntie is auntie. Zarganar is Zarganar. I don’t want to go to (the capital) Nay Pyi Daw. Zarganar firmly stands on my (feet) ... it’s my right. Agreement and disagreement is everywhere.
On Burma's up-and-coming generation
In the NLD (Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party), where are the intellectual people ... who are under 40 years old?
As you know, in our country, we don’t have the opportunity to study political science. There are no students (in Burma) skilled in political science. Thirty years ago, I attended ... college. We studied political science, but this is not real political science. It was just propaganda for Burma’s socialist program.
Most Burmese don’t know what is human rights or what is labor law. Actually, our politicians ... they don’t know what is democracy. They don’t know about human rights.
They may look like they really understand democracy ... but they’re just actors. You have to train and teach them.
Labor law? Labor unions? I don’t understand this, actually. So skillful persons, I’d like to invite you to our country. Please teach me. I’d like to learn from you.
A joke about the junta's newly retired senior general
An old villager asked a guard, ‘Hey, young boy. I want to meet the senior general.’ The guard replied, ‘No, he resigned. Peacefully.’
In the next 15 minutes, the villager asked the same question. ‘Hey, young boy, I want to see the senior general.’ The guard replied, ‘I’ve already told you ... he resigned!’ The old villager smiled and went away.
The next time ... he asked the same question. The guard was very angry and pointed his gun at the old man. ‘I’ve already told you! He resigned! Do you understand?’
‘Yes, I understand. But I like to listen to that sweet (sound).’