***UPDATE: English PEN are delighted to announce that on 14 October 2009 Zargana was awarded the inaugural PEN/Pinter prize for an International Writer of Courage. To read more about the inaugural ceremony, please click here. ***

Poet, opposition activist and Burma’s leading comedian Zargana was arrested on the evening of 4 June 2008 after leading a private relief effort to deliver aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis. 

Zargana was sentenced to forty-five years imprisonment on 21 November 2008 for violating the Electronics Act, and received an additional fourteen year prison term on 27 November 2008 for his peaceful opposition activities, making a total of fifty-nine years. On 13 February 2009 the Rangoon Division Court reduced Zargana’s prison term by twenty-four years. He has therefore to serve the remaining thirty-five years in prison.

Zargana is extremely popular in Myanmar (Burma) for his political satires, having been permitted to perform the traditional Burmese role of a ‘wise fool’ to criticize the leadership during the 1980s. Zargana, whose pseudonym means ‘tweezers’ and refers to his years spent training as a dentist, 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.

Zargana was first arrested in October 1988 for these 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 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. He scratched his poems on the floor of his cell using a piece of pottery before committing them to memory. During this period of imprisonment, his 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 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.


As part of English PEN WiPC’s recent event, Breaking through the Silence, comedian Reece Shearsmith performed the following poem by Zargana, ‘I Smile’.

Lying on a rough cane mat
In a narrow cell
Which the sun cannot find
And where the air is still

North and South, East and West
Four brick walls
And a zinc roof:
Iron Bar City.

Slip-slop, slip-slop,
Footsteps halt
At the door of the cell
The guard comes and goes
Like clockwork.

In pain, kicked and punched
In the back, in the guts
I suffer all five agonies.
I hear the rhythm of my breathing
But my voice is mute.
My mouth is shut.
Unblinking, I smile.

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