Myanmar: Zargana sentenced to 45 years

***UPDATE: English PEN is appalled by the additional fourteen-year prison term handed down to leading comedian and poet Zargana 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. For more information, please click here. ***

English PEN is stunned by the forty-five year prison sentence handed down on 21 November 2008 to poet and comedian Zargana for violating the Electronics Act. He is among a number of leading dissidents to have been sentenced in recent days in special courts held inside Insein prison for their peaceful opposition activities, many to staggeringly harsh sentences.

According to PEN’s information, Maung Thura, best known by his stage name, “Zargana” (also transcribed as ‘Zarganar’), a leading comedian, poet and opposition activist, was arrested on the evening of 4 June 2008 after leading a private relief effort to deliver aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis which struck on 2 May 2008. He is believed to be sentenced for his outspoken criticism of the government’s slow response to the cyclone, and his opposition activities. A major crackdown in Burma has been underway since early September 2007, following demonstrations led by monks and pro-democracy activists which began on 19 August 2007. Many of those who took part in these protests, including Zargana, poet Saw Wei and musician Win Maw have been sentenced in the past two weeks in what the BBC describes as ‘a judicial crackdown across the spectrum of Burma’s pro-democracy movement’.

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Zargana is Burma’s leading comedian, popular for his political satires. Zargana spent several years in prison in the early 1990s for his opposition activities. Zargana, whose pseudonym means ‘tweezers’ and refers to his years spent training as a dentist, was first arrested in October 1988 after making fun of the government, but freed six months later. However, on 19 May 1990, he impersonated General Saw Maung, former head of the military government, to a crowd of thousands at the Yankin Teacher’s Training College Stadium 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 writing poetry. One of his prison poems was published in the International PEN anthology This Prison Where I Live.

After his release from prison in March 1994, Zargana 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. He was briefly detained from 25 September-18 October 2007 for his support to the monks demonstrating in the capital, Rangoon.

Send your appeals:

– Expressing shock at the harsh sentence handed down to writer, comedian and pro-democracy activist Zargana, and seeking assurances of his well-being;
– Demanding the immediate and unconditional release of all those currently detained in Myanmar in violation of Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Appeals to:

Senior General Than Shwe
Chairman, State Peace and Development Council
c/o Ministry of Defence, Naypyitaw, Union of Myanmar
Salutation: Dear General

We also strongly recommend that you copy your appeal letter to the Burmese embassy in the UK asking them to forward it to the Burmese authorities and welcoming any comments:

His Excellency U Nay Win
Embassy of the Union of Myanmar
19A Charles Street
Berkeley Square

Letters to the press:

PEN members may consider writing letters to their national newspapers expressing alarm at events in Burma, and highlighting Zargana’s case to illustrate the many years of repression in the country.


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