Last year, widespread protests in Myanmar, sparked by rising fuel prices and an economic crisis in the region, made headline news around the world. After thousands of monks joined the demonstrations, references to a ‘Saffron Revolution’ began to circulate. This encouraged other protestors and, when the monks fled or were forcibly removed, civilians took to the streets. Information was sketchy until horrifying pictures of arrests and violence, sent from mobile phones, started to be published on the Internet.
One of those arrested for his support of the monks’ demonstrations in Rangoon was Myanmar’s leading comedian and performance poet, Maung Thura, popular for his political satires. He uses the pseudonym Zargana (which means ‘tweezers’) and refers to his years spent training as a dentist. Zargana’s verbal dexterity has already incurred the wrath of the authorities and he has spent several years in prison for his opposition activities. He was first arrested in October 1988 and held for six months after making fun of the government. Two years later he was detained again after impersonating General Saw Maung, former head of the military government, in front of a crowd of thousands at a teacher training college in Rangoon. This time he was sentenced to five years in prison. Held in solitary confinement in a tiny cell, Zargana began to write poetry. Forbidden to read and write in prison, he was forced to scratch his poems onto the floor using a piece of pottery before committing them to memory. Following his release in March 1994 Zargana was banned from performing in public, but he continued to make tapes and videos, which were strictly censored by the authorities.
Then, in 1996, after speaking out against censorship to a foreign journalist, he was banned from performing his work altogether and denied the freedom to write and publish. Undeterred, Zargana continued to spread his jokes and poetry by word of mouth, until his rearrest on 25 September 2007. This time, Zargana’s notoriety and a mass of international appeals helped to secure his release a month later.
On the evening of 4 June 2008, after Zargana had led a private effort to deliver aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis, police raided his home in Yangon and he was arrested once again. Initially no reason was given for his detention but it was widely believed that he was held as a punishment for ridiculing state media reports in the cyclone’s aftermath and for his criticism of the regime’s response to the disaster. It wasn’t until 14 August 2008 that Zargana and journalist Zaw Thet Htwe appeared at a hearing held at the Rangoon West District Court, within the precincts of Insein prison, where both men were charged with ‘defiling a place of worship with intent to insult the religion’. It has been reported that during the hearing, the prosecutor submitted photographs of Zargana that, it was claimed, demonstrated his disaffection towards the state and government. The prosecution also submitted transcripts of interviews he had given to the BBC and Voice of America.
Thet Htwe had been working with Zargana and other leading Burmese figures to deliver aid and support to the victims of Cyclone Nargis. The journalist was arrested on 13 June 2008 whilst visiting his sick mother in central Myanmar and transferred to an interrogation centre in Yangon. His computer, mobile phone and personal documents were also confiscated. Thet Htwe spent several years in detention in the 1990s for his work with a banned political organisation, the Democratic Party for a New Society, which is now forced to operate in exile. He then worked as editor of First Eleven Sports Journal, a popular sports publication in Myanmar, and was rearrested in July 2003 on charges of treason following the publication of critical articles in the magazine. At the time he was sentenced to death by a military court in Insein prison, but this was later reduced to three years in prison, and he was released in 2005.
PEN and other human rights organisations are seriously concerned about the charges against Zargana and Zaw Thet Htwe, whom they believe to be detained in violation of Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If they are found guilty, the two men face up to fifteen years in prison.
They join another writer, the veteran journalist and pro-democracy activist U Win Tin, aged seventy-eight, who has been in prison for the past nineteen years. Former Editor of Hanthawati, and Vice-President of the Journalists’ and Writers’ Association of Burma, Win Tin was also a literary and arts critic and the author of various articles that were critical of the authorities. His previous sentences were extended by seven years in March 1996 for having published a clandestine magazine inside the prison, bringing his total sentence to twenty years. Recent reports suggest that Win Tin’s health has severely deteriorated: he has spondylitis, and suffers from heart disease and acute asthma. At the beginning of the year he underwent a hernia operation and remains very frail.
Readers may like to send appeals expressing serious concern about the charges against Zargana and Zaw Thet Htwe, and calling for their immediate and unconditional release; and expressing alarm at reports of the deteriorating health of Win Tin and urging the authorities to release him on humanitarian grounds. Please send your appeal to:
His Excellency U Nay Win
Embassy of the Union of Myanmar
19A Charles St
London W1J 5DX
Fax: 020 7629 4169