Burmese Police Arrest Comedian

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Jules Motte / ABACAUSA

Actor and military junta opponent Zarganar organizes relief supplies for Cyclone Nargis survivors on May 19

Comedy is no laughing matter in Burma. Just ask Maung Thura, the country's most famous satirist, who performs under the stage name Zarganar, or "tweezers." On the night of June 4, the 47-year-old Burmese was arrested at his Rangoon home, shortly after he led a group of volunteers on an aid-delivery mission to the Irrawaddy Delta, which was devastated last month by a cyclone that left 134,000 people dead or missing. Before the police took him away, Maung Thura told foreign media outlets that many of the places he visited in the delta had not received any relief supplies from the country's governing junta. He also poked fun at an article in the government mouthpiece, the New Light of Myanmar, which criticized the international community for sending unneeded chocolate bars to victims of Cyclone Nargis. The comedian's outspokenness did not amuse the junta, which dispatched 10 security officials to arrest him and ransack his home.

Burma's military leaders have deemed the relief and rehabilitation stage of the post-Nargis clean-up "successfully carried out." But the United Nations estimates that roughly half of the storm's victims have still not seen any form of aid more than four weeks after the cyclone. A pledge last month by junta leader Than Shwe to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that the government would no longer impede foreign relief work has still not been fully met. After nearly a month vainly awaiting permission from the junta to deliver relief supplies, four U.S. Navy ships on June 5 departed waters off the Burmese coast.

Incensed by government inaction, many Burmese have personally delivered bags of rice and drinking water to Nargis refugees. The country's top brass have not taken kindly to such private largesse, setting up roadblocks to deter relief convoys and hassling some monks who hand out mosquito nets or scoops of rice. An aid effort spearheaded by a comedian who made government misrule his fodder was bound to irk the junta.

Maung Thura trained as a dental surgeon, but he is the scion of a political family. Both of his parents were writers-turned-activists, and his comedy is characterized by intricate anti-government puns that routinely get him into trouble. After a democratic uprising in 1988 was brutally suppressed by the junta, Maung Thura spent several years in and out of jail. He has been harassed by the junta several times since then, most recently last September when he was arrested for daring to bring food to Buddhist monks who led another doomed pro-democracy push.

The police who arrested Maung Thura on June 4 did not indicate why he was being taken away, a common practice in a country with little regard for legal due process. Authorities also took more from the home than just the comedian. They took his computer, which contained video files of the plight of Nargis survivors. In addition, the security forces seized two DVDs. One was samizdat footage of the diamond-encrusted 2006 wedding ceremony of Than Shwe's daughter; the film highlighted the life of privilege led by the country's ruling elite, even as many Burmese struggle to fill their bellies. The other video was a bootleg of the latest in the Rambo film series, which features the aging hero battling the Burmese junta. Apparently, Hollywood action flicks displease the junta just as much as domestically produced comedy.