Maung Thura (aka ‘Zarganar’)

***UPDATE: We were saddened to learn that Zarganar’s father, Nan Nyunt Swe, passed away on 14 July 2010. We offer our condolences to his friends and family. Nan Nyunt Swe was a prolific researcher, historian, writer and poet who greatly influenced Zarganar’s own words and lyrics. Although prevented from writing under his own name after the military government took power in 1988, he continued to produce articles under pseudonyms right up until his death. Burma will miss him. ***


***UPDATE: English PEN are delighted to announced that on 14 October 2009, Zarganar was awarded the inaugural PEN/Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage. For more information on the ceremony, held at the British Library, please click here. ***

*** UPDATE: On 26 November 2008, just five days after he was sentenced to forty five years imprisonment, Zarganar was awarded the Artventure Freedom to Create Imprisoned Artist Prize. The Artventure Freedom to Create Prize was launched this year by ArtVenture, in association with Article 19, to recognise artists who use their talents to promote empathy and understanding, and to confront discrimination and oppression. As such, US$ 25,000 will now be put towards supporting Zarganar and his family, paying legal costs and supporting advocacy efforts.  ***

*** UPDATE: We were appalled by the additional fourteen-year prison term handed down to leading comedian and poet Zarganar on 27 November 2008, added to the 45 year sentence served against him a week earlier as part of a major judicial crackdown on dissent. This brings his total sentence to fifty-nine years. ***

*** UPDATE: According to the BBC, Zarganar is believed to be one of seven dissidents to have been moved from Insein in Rangoon to Kachin State in December 2008. His sister-in-law has described the move as “a very cruel act by the government”, as it will make it extremely difficult for the family to make regular prison visits”. The BBC’s Burmese Service have stated that Kachin State is “a cold and remote region where the military junta sends many of its jailed political opponents.” *** 

*** UPDATE: On 13 February 2009 Zarganar’s prison sentence was commuted by twenty-four years. He must now serve thirty-five years in prison for his peaceful opposition activities and criticism of the government. *** 

Full name: Maung Thura
Profession: Comedian, poet, film-maker and pro-democracy activist
Date of arrest: 4 June 2008
Details of arrest: Zarganar was arrested on 4 June 2008, after leading a private effort to deliver aid to Cyclone Nargis’ victims. On 14 August 2008, Zargana appeared at a hearing held at the Rangoon West District Court within the Insein prison precincts, where he was charged with seven offences. On 21 November 2008, he was handed down a staggeringly harsh sentence of forty five years for having violated the Electronics Act.

Previous arrests: Zarganar was first arrested in October 1988 for opposition activities, and was freed six months later. On 19 May 1990, he impersonated General Saw Maung, former head of the military government, to a crowd of thousands in Rangoon. He was arrested shortly afterwards and sentenced to five years in prison. He was held in solitary confinement in a tiny cell in Rangoon’s Insein Prison, where he began scratching his poems on the floor of his cell before committing them to memory. He was again briefly detained from 25 September-18 October 2007 for his support to the monks demonstrating in the capital, Rangoon. He was among many activists who were arrested in the Government crackdown that followed.

Professional Details: Zarganar (whose nickname means ‘tweezers’) is extremely popular in Myanmar (Burma) for his political satires, having been permitted to perform the traditional Burmese role of a ‘wise fool’, criticising the military leadership during the 1980s. For a while, the authorities tolerated him, and even on occasion invited him to perform for them. But as the political climate deteriorated, the authorities lost patience and attempts were made to silence him. Zarganar gave speeches at Rangoon General Hospital during the 1988 uprising that attracted large audiences and won rousing ovations. He quickly became a leading voice of the student pro-democracy movement although he never officially joined a political party. During his imprisonment from 1990 onwards, Zarganar’s case was taken up by the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN and one of his prison poems was published in the PEN anthology This Prison Where I Live. After his release in 1994, Zarganar was banned from performing in public, but continued to make tapes and videos which were strictly censored by the authorities. In May 1996, after speaking out against censorship to a foreign journalist, he was banned from performing his work altogether, and stripped of his freedom to write and publish, but continued to defy the authorities, spreading his jokes by word of mouth. 
Honorary Member: English and Danish PEN Centres

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