PEN heralds release of Burmese poet Zarganar

The Burmese poet Zarganar, an honorary member of English PEN, has been released today as part of a prisoner amnesty.

Zarganar (Maung Thura) was handed a 59 year sentence in 2008 after criticising the Burmese junta’s poor aid response to Cyclone Nargis.

Since his imprisonment, English PEN has campaigned relentlessly for Zarganar’s release, with a rally in Trafalgar Square and ‘poetry protests’ at the Burmese Embassy in London.  PEN activists have sent thousands of letters and cards to Zarganar during his imprisonment, and the organisation co-hosted the first ever Burmese Arts Festival in 2010 at which Zarganar’s work was featured.  In 2009 the inaugural PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage was awarded to Zarganar by the poet Tony Harrison.

Salil Tripathi, a trustee of English PEN and chair of its Writers in Prison Committee, said:

We are delighted by the release of Zarganar and others who had been imprisoned in Burma because of what they had written or said. They should never have been in prison in the first place. However, this prisoner amnesty does not appear to be linked to any long term political reform in Burma.  The British Government, the international community, and companies that do business with the Burmese regime must now demand measures to protect free expression and human rights.

Update – 13 October 2011 (from Index on Censorship)

Zarganar’s friend, the painter and performance artist Htein Lin managed to talk to him last night, and Zarganar passed on his thanks to all those who campaigned on his behalf. To view the original, please click here.

On Wednesday 12 October, my good friend Zarganar was released from Myitkyina jail in northern Burma early in the morning.

He told me that even before he had got on the plane to Rangoon, he was being called by the BBC Burmese service and a journalist from the local Eleven Media. He told the journalists that, based on President Shwe Mann’s interview with a Norwegian minister last week promising that political prisoners would be released in the next few days,  he’d been expecting a big exodus.  Instead he’d had to leave behind in Myitkyina jail four monks imprisoned after the 2007 Saffron Revolution.  He said the government’s build-up was like listening to warm-up music for Lay Phyu, a famous Burmese rockstar, and then getting an old singer on stage to sing a lullaby.

In interviews later in the day, he said he had believed Aung San Suu Kyi when she’d said that we were starting the transition phase, until he’d exited Rangoon airport and started to have his doubts.  He also said he’d been reading a lot about the “fourth estate” — sa-to-ta hman-tain in Burmese – in the journals recently and wondering what it was.  He’d come to the conclusion it must be another way of describing Minister of Information Kyaw San since that was all he ever read about. Now back in his apartment in Sanchaung, a couple of floors above the room I once stayed in, he’d found himself besieged by the fourth estate, many of whom were also his friends and drinking buddies, and he’d had to escape his apartment.

As journalists interviewed him, more jokes he had been saving up emerged:  Einstein meets four people and asks them their IQ.  The first proudly announces it’s 180, and Einstein begins a discussion on quantum physics.  The second claims 150 and they discuss recent mathematical theories.  The third says 120, and Einstein and he chat about the cinema.  The last person looks uncomfortable and admits to an IQ of 60.  Einstein looks very pleased and asks for an update of the day’s discussions in parliament.

I caught up with him on the phone at fellow actor Zin Waing’s house.  I told him how our three year old was a paid up member of the campaign to free him and had been shouting “Free Zarganar” since she was barely two.

He asked me to thank everyone throughout Europe who had been working on the Free Zarganar Campaign, and organisations like Equity, PEN, Index on Censorship, Amnesty, Freemuse, the Bremen Solidarity Prize, Prix de Droits de l’Homme, and Freedom to Create who had recognised him and other prisoners in Burma.  He told me he was looking forward to renewing acquaintance with director Rex Bloomstein who made the documentary “This Prison Where I Live” and meeting — at least virtually -his fellow comedian Michael Mittermeier for the first time.

We were very pleased to speak again, but both of us will be much happier if the tally of political prisoner releases goes higher than the just over 200 prisoners we saw last week, and hits the 2000 mark.

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