Wednesday, October 31, 2007

No one can forget what they saw

Over the past week, at least 75 people, including two journalists, who were arrested during the September protests in Burma have been released from Insein prison, reports Burmese-run news agency Mizzima News.

The IFEX Burma Action Group has called upon the UN to help exiled reporters and publicly investigate the cases of missing, jailed and murdered journalists. Meanwhile, one activist who was recently released speaks out about his detention.

Comedian, poet and opposition activist Zarganar was released on 17 October after spending a harrowing three weeks in jail. He was arrested by an eight-strong "raid and search" team on 25 September for offering alms to protesting monks at Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon.

In an exclusive interview with Mizzima News, Zarganar talks about what life behind bars was like, and why, although the street protests have stopped, the fight against military rule is not yet over. Below is an edited version:

Q: We heard that you were put in a military dog cell. What kind of place is this?

A: A military dog cell is a special cell for prisoners who commit crimes inprison. These criminals are shackled and sent there for further punishment. They are put in isolation and solitary confinement. There are about 30 Alsatians guarding this type of cell, so it is called a military dog cell.

The measurement of the cell is about 8'x10'. You cannot see outside. There is no proper ventilation and sometimes it's too cold. I was made to sleep on a wooden board. I could not have a bath for the first two days. The foodis terrible, as are the living conditions. There is no proper toilet. I had only a dining plate for both urination and excreta. I could use this plate only once for the whole day as it was filled after a single use. I had to spend seven or eight days there. I got pneumonia.

Q: Have you been watched since your release?

A: Yes. They keep watching me from some teashops and snack shops in front of my house. The ward-level PDC members (Peace and Development Council, local level administration of the military junta) told me that they would do so in advance. I don't care about them. Let them stay and watch. I go out as usual.

Q: We heard that the authorities banned 19 writers and artists from writing and performing for offering alms to protesting monks at Shwedagon. How does the ban affect them?

A: I have been banned for nearly two years now. It affects our livelihood. How can we survive without work? We know nothing about other trades. We can't learn how to fire a gun at this age. As for the people, they have to suffer too; they cannot read the works of these writers and cannot see the films of these artists.

Q: Most of the leading students and monks have been arrested. Do you think the movement has ceased?

A: We cannot say the movement has ceased. It is simmering under the ashes. It's just temporary; it cannot be stopped. The movement is simmering in the hearts and souls of the people.

Q: If the recent protests are still simmering, can the movement revive again?

A: The movement will re-emerge in different forms. If the SPDC gives us what we want, there will be no more protests. But if they give us what we do not want, it will reignite the movement. No one can forget what they saw and what they encountered in the recent protests. The movement may not re-emerge in the same form as in the recent protests, sacrificing a lot of lives and damaging a lot of livelihoods.

It is premature for me to say what will be the form of the struggle. But the chance of the protests and movement re-emerging is sure.

>>> Read the full interview here (English only)


Anonymous said...

Myanmar Magic: Tell a Joke, and You Disappear

[The New York Times, October 29, 2007]

MANDALAY, Myanmar — U Par Par Lay goes to India to have his toothache treated. The Indian dentist wonders why the Burmese man has come all the way to India.

“Don’t you have dentists in Myanmar?” he asks.

“Oh, yes, we do, doctor,” Mr. Par Par Lay says. “But in Myanmar, we are not allowed to open our mouths.”

That’s a favorite joke by Mr. Par Par Lay, a third-generation practitioner of a-nyeint pwe, Myanmar’s traditional vaudeville, featuring puppets, music and slapstick comedy tinged with in-your-face political satire — all in a country where cracking the wrong joke can land you in jail.

Mr. Par Par Lay, the 60-year-old leader of the Mustache Brothers troupe, is paying dearly for it.

About midnight on Sept. 25, his relatives say, the police raided their home-cum-theater here and took him away. On the same day, at least one other popular comedian who had previously been imprisoned for his political jokes, a man named Zargana in Yangon, the largest city, was arrested, according to Amnesty International and local residents.

The tightening of the gag on dissident voices occurred as the ruling junta conducted a bloody crackdown on the first major pro-democracy uprising in this country in 19 years, led by Buddhist monks.

“I tried to find him, but I don’t know where he is,” said Mr. Par Par Lay’s wife, Daw Ma Win Ma, 56, a dancer. “If the past is an indication, he must have been beaten a lot. I am worried about whether he is alive or not.”

The Mustache Brothers are a family troupe of 13 comedians, dancers and musicians. Mr. Par Par Lay and his brother U Lu Maw, 58, favor handlebar mustaches, the source of their group’s name. They used to travel from village to village, performing at weddings, funerals and festivals. In former days, Burmese kings would watch a-nyeint pwe (pronounced ah-NYAY pway) to gauge public sentiment couched in the comedy.

But it seems the current junta never developed a taste for it.

In 1990, when the military government rejected the decisive victory of the National League for Democracy led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the country’s first election in 30 years and placed her under house arrest, Mr. Par Par Lay was thrown in jail for six months for his political jokes.

In 1996 his troupe performed before an audience of 2,000, including Yangon-based foreign ambassadors, at the lakeside compound of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, by then a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. A videotape of the event shows Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi laughing, clearly entertained.

The generals apparently were less amused. Mr. Par Par Lay and his cousin U Lu Zaw, also a comedian, were sentenced to seven years in a labor camp. Mr. Par Par Lay was released after five and a half years.

Afterward, the government scratched the Mustache Brothers from the list of state-licensed artists that residents of Myanmar, the former Burma, were permitted to hire. Determined to keep their tradition alive and to make a living, they turned to performing for foreigners.

Even with Mr. Par Par Lay gone, his family has kept the theater on a run-down street, which Mr. Lu Maw proudly likened to the West End of London and Broadway.

“We are artists: we believe in ordinary people, not in the government,” Mr. Lu Maw said in English. “We need light, but in Myanmar, light on and off. Not enough electricity. No water supply. School — money, money, money! Ordinary people no money.

“So we joke. People need a good joke. But the government don’t like us because we joke.”

Mr. Lu Maw, the only English speaker in the troupe, whose spoofs the government has appeared not to mind too much as long as they are performed only in English, said he learned the language from tourists.

“My favorite English is American and English slang,” he said. “My brother in the clink, up the river, in big house.”

His street-side theater can accommodate barely 10 red plastic chairs. Marionettes are hung against a wall. On display was a picture of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi visiting the Mustache Brothers in June 2002. Outside, Mr. Lu Maw’s nephews kept an eye out for the police.

Mr. Lu Maw said Mr. Par Par Lay had strong opinions about the generals who have mismanaged this resource-rich country into poverty.

As one story unfolds, a general has died and become a big fish. As the tsunami rolls toward Myanmar, the fish surfaces and admonishes the wave: “Stop! I have already done that here.”

But Mr. Lu Maw said the recent crackdown on the monks by soldiers was “no good for jokes.”

“People are sad,” he said. “Man kill man, you go to hell. This Buddhist belief. Now they are killing monks! They go beyond hell.”

Mr. Lu Maw said everyone in Myanmar was busy trying to keep up with rising prices, which is what originally drove people onto the streets to protest in August. International pressure has helped his family, he said. When Mr. Par Par Lay was arrested in 1996, he said, British and Hollywood comedians and actors wrote to the Myanmar government in protest.

“We need their help again,” Mr. Lu Maw said. “Richard Gere’s support is especially important because he is a Buddhist. We need a Rambo.”

Despite Mr. Lu Maw’s tireless optimism, his theater was permeated with sadness. In recent weeks the family has struggled to make ends meet because of the dearth of foreign tourists. Mustache Brothers T-shirts are collecting dust. Older members of the family were lying listlessly on a wooden bed on the mud-brick floor.

“If the government comes and takes his clothes and food, then I will know he is alive,” Ms. Ma Win Ma, Mr. Par Par Lay’s wife, said. Mr. Lu Maw said that when Mr. Par Par Lay was in prison camp, he used to perform for other inmates before bedtime. “Maybe he is performing in prison somewhere,” Mr. Lu Maw said. “Yes, we are afraid. But we keep on going. We just joke. This is our job, our family tradition.”

Anonymous said...

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