Remarks on ICPC’s Awarding of Zarganar

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By Marian Botsford Fraser
Chair of Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International

Fellow PEN members, honoured guests,
May I start by saying what an honour is for me to be here to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Independent Chinese PEN Center and to present the first Liu Xiaobo Courage to Write Award.

This center has been remarkable since its origins of founding, in the long cold shadow of June, 1989. As Chair of Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International, it has been my great pleasure to work with ICPC, a relationship that began in December, 2007, when, with PEN Canada and American PEN, we launched the Olympics campaign. The hallmarks of that campaign, and every subsequent engagement and collaboration, have been efficiency, speed, accuracy, but also, great warmth and generosity of spirit. ICPC is not only one of the most active of PEN centres, but also one of PEN International’s greatest resources.

The Burmese poet, comedian, and activist Zarganar is the ideal recipient of the 1st Liu Xiaobo Courage to Write Award. His given name is Maung Thura; he’s a 49-year-old comedian, poet and activist, who calls himself Zarganar (which means “tweezers”) because he trained as a dentist. From a young age he entertained people by giving performances and doing impersonations. He formed a dance troupe and a drama group, and played lead roles in four films.

Zarganar became Burma’s leading comedian, popular for his political satires, reviving the traditional Burmese role of the court jester—the only person allowed to criticise the leader. Zarganar was optimistic about the role of the comic, saying, “If the government takes a wrong step in the morning, we can criticise it at night…” For a while, the military authorities tolerated him, and even on occasion invited him to perform for them. But as the political climate deteriorated, authorities lost patience and attempts were made to silence him. During the 1988 uprising, Zaragana gave speeches which attracted large audiences and won rousing ovations. He became a leading voice of the student pro-democracy movement, although he never joined a political party. His crowd-pulling ability was second only to that of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Zarganar was first arrested in October 1988 after making fun of the government, and freed six months later. But in May 1989, he impersonated General Saw Maung, former head of the military government, before a crowd of thousands. He was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison, held in solitary confinement in a tiny cell in Rangoon’s Insein Prison. He served four years of this sentence, prohibited from reading and writing, so he scratched poems on the floor of his cell with shards of broken pottery, before committing them to memory.

When he was released in 1994, Zarganar was banned from performing in public. His tapes and videos were strictly censored. In 1996 he was banned from performing altogether and forbidden to write and publish. But he remained defiant, spreading his jokes by word of mouth, until he was arrested in September 2007, for supporting the monks in the Rangoon protests of that autumn. He was released in October, but re-arrested in June 2008 for criticizing the Myanmar junta’s response to cyclone Nargis in May, 2008.
When cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy Delta, Zarganar mobilized more than 400 entertainers to deliver aid to the residents. These efforts, funded by the artists and by donations, began 5 days after the storm and reached many people who’d received little aid from the government. Zarganar gave interviews about his work and people’s need, and openly ridiculed state media reports about the government’s relief effort. In August 2008, he was charged with seven offences, including “defiling a place of worship with intent to insult the religion…” Three months later he was sentenced to 45 years, for violating the Electronics Act. A week later he received an additional 14-year sentence for other offences. He was removed from Insein Prison in Rangoon, where his family lives, and banished to a distant, rural prison to serve his 59-year sentence.

In 2009, Zarganar’s sentence was reduced, to a mere 35 years. He is known to suffer be from heart problems, jaundice and a stomach ulcer, for which he has received minimal medical attention. But he is often denied full access to family visits, and we have ongoing serious concerns for his well-being.

In 2008, PEN Canada gave Zarganar its One Humanity Award, and requested that the money be made available to him directly, because it is only with cash that prisoners can acquire medicine and healthy food. Friends of the WiPC of PEN International were able to make it possible for Zarganar to receive small amounts of money, over many months, and I can assure you that we shall do the same with this award.

There are 2,100 political prisoners in Myanmar. In May of this year, in response to the urging by the UN Special Envoy that all political prisoners be released immediately, the regime responded, cynically, even cruelly, by ordering that one single year be cut off all sentences. Small relief for Zarganar, whose sentence still exceeds thirty years.
Why is Zarganar a fine choice for the Liu Xiaobo Award?

The jester, the thinker, both poets…I think Zarganar and Liu Xiaobo are kindred spirits, each in the cell of an isolated prison, deprived of contact with their families, silenced, temporarily, but not defeated. With many of you here this evening, I was in Oslo for the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, or rather, to his empty chair. During that ceremony, we heard the distinguished Norwegian actor, Liv Ullman, read the words of Liu Xiaobo, words he wrote on the eve of his imprisonment, in December, 2009:

I have no enemies and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested, and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me, and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies…Hatred can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation…and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy…. I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation’s development and social change, to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.

In 2007, between imprisonments, Zarganar was interviewed by a British documentary maker (illegally, of course). During the course of that interview, Zarganar said:

I don’t like revenge, and hatred. The military regime has banned me, but I don’t hate them. All of my enemies must be my friends.

I’d like to end with a very brief poem by Zarganar, written during his first imprisonment:

Don’t Wake Him Up

When will the door finally click open?
They won’t let me know. Never mind
As long as my heart still beats,
I’ll be free some day.
Every door has two directions
In and out. Every coin has two sides
Heads follow tails. So,
Thanks to the law of averages
I can set my homesick mind at rest.

Thank you for honouring Burmese poet, comedian, activist Zarganar with the first Liu Xiaobo Courage to Write Award.

July 23, 2011