Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 4 September 2014

Zarganar: Beloved Burmese comedian, former political prisoner and human rights activist

Zarganar: Beloved Burmese comedian, former political prisoner and human rights activist

Zarganar is widely considered to be Myanmar’s most popular comedian, as well as being a prolific writer, poet and filmmaker. An outspoken critic of the former military junta, the four-time political prisoner, whose real name is U Maung Thura, spent a total of 11 years behind bars. He was released in 2011 during a presidential amnesty granted to prisoners of conscience. In an exclusive interview with Mizzima Business Weekly’s Jessica Mudditt, Zarganar spoke about his campaign to secure the release of remaining political prisoners and military intelligence officers, as well as his unlikely friendship with a murderer known as Buffalo, who helped him find the path to forgiveness.

What are you currently working on?

I have so many plans, but my focus at the moment is on securing the release of every remaining political prisoner. I’m on the clarification for political prisoners committee, which is trying to formally clarify the status of 32 people who were excluded from last year’s presidential amnesty. The government classifies these individuals as criminals and terrorists and therefore refuses to recognise them as political prisoners. They were found guilty of bombing and setting fire to a village in Shan State, as well as murder and rape. None were provided with a fair trial and I strongly believe the rape and murder charges are false. As members of the Shan State Army, their objective was political: they attacked an area where government troops were living – it was a battlefield at the time. No one was killed when the village was destroyed. Most have been in prison for at least a decade and we feel that enough is enough.

Our committee has called on the government many times to have these 32 people reclassified as political prisoners and to set them free. Unfortunately, it seems that the government has no intention of carrying on with the process of releasing all political prisoners. No further amnesties have been granted since January 1 despite the fact that President U Thein Sein pledged last year that there would be no more political prisoners left in Myanmar.

What progress is being made towards having those prisoners released?

Last March, an important meeting took place between the government and civil society groups, but I wasn’t able to attend because I had kidney stones and needed an operation to remove them. In previous meetings, I’ve always taken the role of moderator and facilitator – I am the only bridge that exists between the two sides. During that meeting there were a lot of disputes, with both sides blaming the other – and now most committee members want to resign. But if we disband the committee, those 32 people will die in prison. We cannot destroy their hope. So my goal is to try to persuade members of the government and civil society to return to the table for discussions.

You are also working to obtain the release of former military intelligence officers jailed in the aftermath of the purge of Military Intelligence in 2004. What motivated you to take up their cause?

Some of the former military intelligence officers who remain behind bars were actually the ones who sent me to prison and tortured me. But I have forgiven them. I think it’s important to bear in mind the context of the country’s past political situation. These people are human beings and my fellow Burmese citizens, so I feel I must support their release. And every member of the committee agrees and has signed a petition in support.

This evening I will meet with U Soe Thein, Minister of the President’s Office, to discuss the possibility of arranging a meeting to review their cases. I have also requested a meeting with the Minister of Home Affairs, Lieutenant-General Ko Ko. And last weekend I had the chance to discuss the release of both political prisoners and military intelligence officers with President U Thein Sein and House Speaker [Thura] U Shwe Mann. All so far have expressed their agreement.

Was it your first meeting with the President?

No, I’ve met the President several times but it was my first visit to his farmhouse in Nay Pyi Taw. It has a very nice view. The purpose of me being there was to get footage of him on the farm, which will be shown as part of a youth festival and exhibition on International Peace Day on September 21.

I got some great shots of him sowing rice in a paddy field and preparing food for his cows while dressed in a cotton western-style shirt, rather than traditional Burmese dress. People will see him as a normal man rather than the president of the country and they will hear him say that he is creating programs to support the youth and farmers and that he will keep up the momentum of the peace process. In the film he says, “Farmers are the fathers of our country – and I am the son of the farmers.”

The President himself is a keen farmer; before joining military he’d had a lot of farming experience. Nowadays he’s very interested in planting crops and breeding cows.

However, the project also gave me the opportunity to discuss the release of political prisoners and military intelligence officers in more detail after our meeting in the President’s office on Saturday [August 23]. This was very timely, because my aim is to have every prisoner released on International Peace Day. President U Thein Sein said he agrees with my position and will discuss the matter with the special security and defence committee, of which he serves as chairman.

How much public support is there for the release of former military intelligence officers? Could there be a public backlash if they are released?

Possibly, because some Burmese still fear the military intelligence and would feel angry about it. I can understand their point of view – I have Burmese friends in Singapore and the United States who also totally disagree with me on this. But I tell them that I was the one imprisoned and tortured, not them. I lost so much in my life as a result of military rule. Both my parents died while I was in prison and I didn’t get the chance to see their dead bodies. My wife and two children left Myanmar about eight years ago and are now US citizens. My wife refuses to return to Myanmar because she doesn’t trust the government. You could say our marriage has broken down. But although the junta ripped my family apart, I don’t want revenge. I just want to see my country improve.

Is your ability to move forward without bitterness something you attribute to being a practicing Buddhist?

No, it’s not concerned with Buddhism. While in prison I read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. In it he writes about why it’s important to forgive and forget. As for me, I have “edited” his sentiment: I can forgive but I’ll never forget [laughs].

Your ability to forgive those responsible for the suffering you endured goes beyond abstract forgiveness.

As you know, I was sent to prison four times. The second time was before the elections in 1990, when I received a five-year sentence and was sent to Insein prison. At the time, the prison was extremely crowded and political prisoners shared cells with criminals. They often stole my food and were generally very rude people.

I was sharing a cell with a murderer called Buffalo. During the uprising of ‘88 he killed at least 20 people; mostly police. He told me he slit their throats. Yet he was very smart and I came to love him because he supported all the political prisoners. If we didn’t get food, he would do something about it. He had many connections with the wardens and was able to get things we couldn’t. We were roommates and friends for two years, from 1990 until 1992.

Then, when I was transferred to Myiktyina prison in 2008 I was reunited with a lot of my friends – including Buffalo. He’d been released in 2005 and had promised me he’d never kill anyone again. ‘Why did you do it?’ I asked him. His reply was that the person he murdered was a member of the Special Branch. He’d got the death penalty but it’s been commuted to a life sentence. I think he has 13 years left to serve.

Anyhow, he supported me in prison once again – he even got me a mobile phone so that I could call my friends and relatives outside Myanmar! Buffalo was a very popular inmate and he was powerful too, amongst both inmates and wardens. He had many privileges and often did repairs at the wardens’ homes. And whenever he re-entered the prison compound, he was never searched. Buffalo also had his own small business – and a corrupt one, yes. Some of the inmates were very wealthy jade merchants or human smugglers and he’d ask them if they wanted a “comfortable stay” when they arrived – in return for cash payments, of course. He’d then use the money to obtain mobile phones and other things from the wardens. Everyone was dependent on him.

One day Buffalo told me that a member of military intelligence was being held in a separate compound from ours. That person, it turned out, had tortured me very badly. He once buried me up to my neck and drove a jeep very fast towards me while shouting that he was going to crush my skull. He terrified me. When I told Buffalo this, he offered to have him killed, saying that no one would ever find out. I refused and said I wanted to meet him instead.

Buffalo agreed and when I saw him, I said, “Uncle Colonel, do you remember me?”

He did and we shook hands. He used to be such a big man but had grown very skinny – and very depressed. His family was also in prison so he could only eat prison food, which was totally inadequate.

I’ll never forget what he said to me next. He begged me to forgive him for what he did to me and he wept. I think it was from that time on that I was able to forgive.

But I did say to him that day: “Are you insane or were you following orders from your superiors?”

He cried a lot and said it was all his fault; that all the blame was his. I wasn’t sure whether to believe that though.

Afterwards I got Buffalo to give him my coffee every morning, as well as some vegetables and dried fish. On the day I left prison I bid him farewell him and promised to work to secure his release. That made him cry. I still send him food parcels and books every month.

Is your focus on the release of certain prisoners or a broader range of issues?

My focus isn’t only on the prisoners. I want to move our country forward and I believe that introducing a federalist system of governance is very important, as well as changing the constitution so that the military aren’t allocated 25 percent of parliamentary seats.

Are you confident these changes will occur before the general elections due late next year?

No, I’m not. The general elections of 2015 are not my heartbeat, you could say. My vision is 2020. But civil society groups need to start working together with the government, the opposition, the military and the ethnic minority parties in order to achieve these long term goals, such as power sharing between the states and union level government. One positive development is that during meetings last week that involved the military and ethnic minority groups, it was agreed that members of the military will start taking part in classes on federalism.

With so much going on in your life, do you have any time left to tell jokes?

I do still perform, and as a comedian, I often use humour to get my point across. For example, when I met with senior members of the military quite recently, I said to them, “Do you know how you can get 100 percent of the peoples’ love?”

“How? How?” they asked me.

“Well, if you completely withdraw from parliament you will get all of their love: every single person will applaud you and want to kiss you.”

They laughed at that. But I don’t believe the military will withdraw before 2015.

Would you like to become a politician?

I’ve always been interested in politics and since I was a young man I’ve read many books on the subject. My mother stood as an independent candidate – which at the time was something I tried to discourage because I thought that as a literary person, she lacked knowledge about politics. Ultimately, she didn’t listen to me and she didn’t win.

As for me personally, I didn’t try to enter politics despite my interest in it because the only route available was through the ruling party at the time, which didn’t appeal.

Nonetheless, politics has been at the centre of my career as a comedian. Nowadays a lot of people are asking me, “What do you want to do now – arts or politics?”

My answer is that I want to be free. I want to sing songs, dance, make films and write articles, novels and poems. I’m so happy doing those things. And although I would like to dedicate 100 percent of my life to politics, the time isn’t right. I want to focus on moving our country onto the right path and encouraging people – especially young people – to participate in the process. I want to be like Arsenal’s coach Arsene Wenger – he’s very good at scouting for new blood in football. I want to keep searching for new blood to serve my country.

Note: On 7 October 2014, 3,073 prisoners were released in a mass presidential pardon. President Thein Sein wrote on his Facebook page that the decision was made in the interests of “humanity, state peace and stability, rule of law and national solidarity”. Among those freed was former former Brigadier General Thein Swe, a senior member of Military Intelligence and the father of Sonny Swe, co-founder of The Myanmar Times and now Mizzima’s chief executive. Sonny Swe also served nine years in prison before his release in 2012.

Click here to read my news article on Sonny’s release.

Click here to read an interview with former Brigadier General Thein Swe