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Last Updated: Monday, 25 September 2006, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
Laughing in the face of danger
By Andrew Harding
BBC News, Burma

Maung Thura
Maung Thura has been imprisoned for his comedy
Maung Thura is a big, bald, cheerful man, with a deep voice and a very dangerous job.

Years ago, he trained to be a dentist. But he kept making his patients laugh. So he sensibly stopped drilling and began joking full time.

He came up with a nickname, Zargana, which means tweezers, in Burmese. Before long, he was the most famous comedian in the country.

Now Burma is ruled by a military regime not known for its sense of humour - and therefore, of course, ripe for ridicule.

For a while - a surprisingly long while - the men in uniform tolerated Zargana's jokes about corruption, superstition, bad roads and all the laughable rules that dictatorships require.

But in October 1988, someone's fist came down on a desk somewhere, and Zargana was sent to prison.

Banned

At first it was for just a few months. But in 1990, he began four and a half years in jail - much of it in solitary confinement. His wife was already pregnant with their second child.

Burma's Orwellian censors deserve their own comedy show

Inside Insein prison Zargana was in good company.

Opposition activists, writers, actors, intellectuals and of course the country's pro-democracy leader, the Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, were all being rounded up.

And they still are. Today Burma has more than 1,150 political prisoners. Earlier this year two students were given 19-year sentences for the crime of writing poems.

When Zargana came out of Insein, he was banned from performing in public. But he was allowed to make tapes and videos - under strict supervision. Big Brother was, of course, on hand to remove any punch line with too much punch.

In fact Burma's Orwellian censors deserve their own comedy show.

Pyinmana (Credit: The New Era Journal)
A rare image of Burma's secret new capital

They have blacked out pictures of women who happen to look a little like Aung San Suu Kyi. References to the Nobel Peace Prize are of course unacceptable, along with anything which could conceivably show the regime in a less than flattering light.

And now, in a sublimely absurd move, the country's brand new capital city has itself been ruled top secret. People caught taking photos of it have been locked up. What more could a satirist want?

And so, with a combination of subtlety and defiance, Zargana has kept on working, and the years have slipped by.

'Into the sunshine'

His children are growing up. His wife runs a small clothing shop in a Rangoon, and Burma's scowling dictatorship is still failing to get the jokes.

Then a few weeks ago Zargana decided to complain about the continuing censorship to a foreign media organisation.

The regime responded by outlawing him altogether - no more recordings, no interviews, no mention of him whatsoever in the local press. He became officially, invisible.

A billboard showing troops at Rangoon's bus station
Government and military officials are ever-present in Rangoon

I went to Rangoon soon afterwards.

It was the rainy season and the city seemed drab and claustrophobic. Narrow mouldy streets, crowds huddled under umbrellas and clusters of men gathered round television sets following the World Cup with silent intensity.

I spent days arranging secret meetings with dissidents, endlessly worrying about whether they were being followed, or I was.

Meeting Zargana was like stepping back into the sunshine. He was relaxed and bold and normal. "Of course I'll be interviewed," he chuckled. "Most of our comedians are scared of the military. I'm not."

Ricochet

We discussed serious issues. Zargana concluding that he preferred Benny Hill to Mr Bean.

I wanted to hear some of his material. "Ah", he said, almost apologetically, "I'm afraid Burmese jokes can be rather subtle and long".

But he told me one about a newspaper article. A man was reported to have died of an electric shock but everyone knew the paper was lying because the economy is in such a mess that most of the time the power is off.

Being officially invisible is not good for business. Zargana is struggling financially at the moment and talking to people like me will not help.

I worry that there may be repercussions for him - but he insists he is ready for anything, including a return to prison.

And all the time, he keeps spreading his jokes by word of mouth - joking from the heart, he calls it. Such is the thirst for comedy in Burma, that they ricochet around the country in a matter of days.

Before I left him I asked him if he thought his jokes had the power to change things.

"I don't think so," he said, "not directly anyway. All they can do is ignite the brains of the people."




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