June 2006: Censors fail to gag popular Burmese comedian

Zarganar, the former dental surgery student who became one of Burma’s best-loved comedians and a mordant satirist, has had his teeth pulled by the censors. “No more public performances,” they told him last month, prompting threats by his colleagues-including well-known actors and directors-to cease production work in a display of sympathy.

The ban extends to all news about Zarganar in the Burmese press. The Orwellian regime has effectively made him a “non-person.”

Zarganar’s gag slipped, however, when The Irrawaddy contacted him by telephone at his Rangoon home. The irrepressible comedian chuckled as he talked about the regime’s latest attempt to silence him.

It was an interview in April with the BBC’s Burmese service that sparked the latest ban, Zarganar said. He had criticized official regulations that he said robbed Burma’s water festival of much of its traditions.

Zarganar, 46, and many of his colleagues had questioned what they saw as an effective ban on the water festival’s tradition of Than Gyat, the satirical stage shows that formed a popular part of the celebrations. Than Gyat pilloried government corruption and inefficiency and drew attention to the country’s social and political problems.

It was only a matter of time before the regime stepped in-Than Gyat scripts now have to undergo strict scrutiny by the censors, ensuring that the shows lose all their original sting.

Zarganar’s troubles with the regime date back 26 years, to the time when he was a third-year dental surgery student, registered under his real name, Maung Thura. He was a natural comedian and performed in shows at Burma’s universities. Soon he was a household name.

After completing his studies, obtaining a bachelor degree, Maung Thura took to the stage full time, adopting the name Zarganar. It means “Tweezers” and was a witty farewell gesture to a dentist’s career he swapped for the vagaries of cabaret and the stage.

Before the 1988 student uprising, Zarganar and his troupe entertained delighted audiences with their satires on the government and its corrupt ways. He got away with a highly popular play, “Beggar,” which ridiculed the late dictator Ne Win and his cronies. Friends and colleagues marveled that he stayed out of trouble and out of jail.

That all changed in 1988. He plunged himself into the uprising, agitating for change and addressing the crowds of demonstrating students. He was inevitably arrested, interrogated for eight days and then locked up in Insein prison for nearly a year, accused of being an “instigator” in the uprising.

At the time of the 1990 election he was again arrested for giving political speeches. His father, the writer and artist Nan Nyunt Swe, was also politically active, speaking at one time in National Day celebrations in Suu Kyi’s house and subsequently banned by the regime’s censors. Zarganar’s mother, Kyi Oo, won election as an independent candidate in the 1990 poll.

A four-year prison sentence now awaited Zarganar. One year after the prison doors again closed on him, he was awarded the Lillian Hellman and Dashiel Hammett Award, given by the Fund for Free Expression, a committee organized by New York based Human Rights Watch.

After his release from prison in 1994, Zarganar was allowed to participate in video productions, working as producer, director, scriptwriter and actor. But his work was closely scrutinized by the censors and military intelligence, in a cat-and-mouse game in which Zarganar and his audiences took delight in sidestepping the authorities.

They didn’t always succeed, and much of his work never reached a public audience. Last February, his video movie, with the prophetic title “Run Out of Patience,” was banned.

Zarganar certainly hasn’t run out of patience. “There are always under-the-table jokes and behind-the-curtain humor,” he told The Irrawaddy.