Page last updated at 12:27 GMT, Saturday, 29 November 2008

Laughter defying Burma's junta

Andrew Harding reflects on his friendship with Burmese comedian Zarganar who, despite repeated imprisonment, continues to make jokes about the country's military rule.

Burmese comedian Zarganar
Zarganar has been active in Burma's democracy movement
It has been an unusually busy few weeks in the Burmese gulag.

A sudden flurry of show-trials. A brisk and generous apportioning of life sentences.

And now the prison vans have begun scattering the guilty into the quietest corners of an isolated country.

The convicts' names are probably unfamiliar to you. The authorities would be happy to keep it that way.

Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Nilar Thein, Zarganar, the list goes on.

Like their more famous colleague, Aung San Suu Kyi, these are Burma's bravest and brightest, devoured by their own government.

Over the past four years living Asia, I have been lucky enough to meet and befriend a handful of these criminals.

Mocking authority

I first ran into Zarganar in 2006.

A woman walks past Rangoon's Insein prison
Pro-democracy activists have been tried in Burma's notorious Insein prison
I had come to Rangoon under cover and found a city full of whispers and fear.

Zarganar was the booming, smiling exception.

We arranged a discreet meeting at a diplomat's house. He shrugged off my concerns about his security.

"Of course you can film me," he said. "I'm not afraid."

Here was a man who had made his choice and was content to follow his own rules wherever they led him.

Zarganar is a big, bald man.

He trained as a dentist but soon discovered his true calling as a comedian, relentlessly mocking the absurdities of life under Burma's incompetent generals.

He quickly became the country's best-known, best-loved joker. And that role has already cost him.

He has been in and out of jail for years, his sketches censored, his performances banned.

Political crackdown

In September 2006, he sent his wife, son and daughter abroad for their own safety. They are now in America.

Zarganar and I stayed in touch by e-mail, and even through an online book club.

In Britain, he would probably have got an OBE for his efforts. In Burma, he got locked up again
Whenever I managed to sneak into the country, we would meet up at a mutual friend's apartment to discuss politics and his other passion, the collected works of Benny Hill.

In September last year, Burma's monks took to the streets, spearheading a bold protest movement against the regime.

Zarganar - prominent in supporting the monks - was briefly arrested during the brutal crackdown that followed.

Then in May of this year, Cyclone Nargis tore through Burma, killing tens of thousands of people.

Again Zarganar was on the front lines raising donations and leading private relief missions to the flooded delta.

In Britain, he would probably have got an OBE for his efforts. In Burma, he got locked up again.

And this time, the generals, clearing the decks, decided to write their own punchline. Zarganar was sentenced - for public order offences - to 45 years in jail.

Family pride

His son, Myat Kaung, called me from New York last weekend just after the news came through. He is a chip off the old block.

Like so many thousands of Burmese exiles, Myat is waiting for something to change back home
Twenty-two years old. Working days as a messenger in Manhattan - spending his evenings composing hip-hop protest songs in Burmese.

Myat sounded impossibly calm on the phone. I could almost hear him smile.

"My dad's happy," he said. "He's always happy.

"He's doing what he wants to do. And I agree with him.

"I think he will spend a long time in jail. But I'm proud of him - all the time."

Like so many thousands of Burmese exiles, Myat is waiting for something to change back home.

"I'm glad my dad stayed there," he said. "You can't do anything from outside. You can only make change from inside."

Life imprisonment

I have tried very hard these past few years to understand the logic and the insecurities of Burma's generals. Their long-standing fears of internal disorder.

Zarganar, his son, his daughter, and his wife.
Zarganar's family say they are proud of him
Their misguided economic policies. The political influence of neighbours like China and Singapore.

But how do you balance all that against the decision to lock up a man like Zarganar for the rest of his life?

What sort of rancid system, what sort of person, can persuade himself that is OK?

It is easy, of course, to be outraged. Anger is cheap.

Besides, I have left Asia now.

I have been blacklisted by the Burmese government and deported by its security services.

All this is, if you like, just a parting shot.

But right now, a friend of mine is sitting in solitary confinement in a tiny cell, with no windows, no natural light.

Zarganar's been suffering from high blood pressure, and stomach ulcers and a couple of days ago his son told me he had had another 14 years added to his sentence. That makes it 59 so far.

He is allowed occasional visits and he has managed, after a fashion, to send me brief messages.

I can picture him now, sitting on the floor and - as he has done in jail in the past - using a stick to write new jokes and songs in the dust.

His shoulders rock back, his bald head shakes gently, and his voice - that deep warm voice - a voice too honest for Burma's rulers - lets out a defiant chuckle.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 29 November, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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