Burmese comedian Zarganar appeared onstage in New York at the first U.S. Secret Policeman’s Ball, as American and British comics took turns using foul words to insult and challenge despots, tyrants and dictators around the world on Sunday.

Burmese comedian and political activist Zarganar answers questions at a press conference in October 2011. Photo: Mizzima
The benefit concert, started 36 years ago in Britain, was conceived by Amnesty International and Monty Python’s John Cleese. A panorama of British and U.S. comedians joked, laughed and shocked to raise funds for the human rights organization.

Burmese comedian Zarganar took the stage on a serious note, he said, not to tell jokes, but to thank Amnesty International for its work around the world.

Zarganar had been serving a 35-year sentence in a Burmese prison for “causing public alarm” after speaking to foreign media and criticizing the Burmese military government. After three years in prison, he was released in October 2011 in an amnesty that freed about 200 political detainees. The newly elected, nominally civilian government has replaced a long-ruling military dictatorship in Burma, but Zarganar said that 25 percent of the country’s parliament is automatically filled by military officers appointed by the government, giving the military the upper hand.

Zarganar suggested another 25 percent of parliament seats be filled by comics: “That way, half the parliament would be crazy.”

The Burmese comedian and director, Zarganar, was imprisoned for speaking out out about human rights abuses in Burma. In 2008, he led a movement that collected money and supplies for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, while also publicly criticizing the government’s response to the disaster.

“Amnesty International’s Secret Policeman’s Ball is an opportunity to demonstrate to a new audience that the freedoms we enjoy every day – to post, tweet, blog and email – are under threat in every region of the world,” said Suzanne Nossel, Amnesty International USA executive director. “New technologies have triggered new forms of repression of basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly. It may sound far-fetched, but comedy is truly life-threatening in many places in the world, as it was for Zarganar in Burma. The best way to stand with those who are denied freedom of speech is to use our freedom to demand theirs.”

Comedians and musicians performing on Sunday were standing up for free speech.

Comedian Russell Brand said: “It’s good there is freedom of speech. This means I can say that I find Prince Charles sexually attractive and that the U.S. presidential elections are a meaningless spectacle to distract us from the mercantile skullduggery of the cabals that control our planet and no one can do anything about it. Thanks Amnesty.”