In the general election held on 8 November 2020, Myanmar’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide majority, winning more seats than in the 2015 election. The military disputed the result, claiming election fraud, and on 1 February, the day parliament was due to sit for the first time since the election, arrested Suu Kyi and other political leaders and declared a state of emergency. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), by the middle of April more than seven hundred people have been killed by security forces since the coup. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested. Writers, journalists and artists are increasingly being targeted.
I first wrote about Zargana, a renowned political satirist, in these pages in October 2008, during Myanmar’s so-called Saffron Revolution. His real name is Maung Thura; his pseudonym Zargana (meaning ‘tweezers’) refers to his years spent training as a dentist. Zargana, an outspoken critic of the military, is once again on the front line. On 6 April, he was arrested at his home and taken to an undisclosed location by junta forces.
A widely celebrated comedian, performance poet, actor and director, Zargana was first arrested in 1988 for participating in pro-democracy demonstrations and was banned from performing in public. Two years later he was arrested again after impersonating General Saw Maung, then 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, Zargana began to write poetry and 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 seized by the authorities. In 1996, after speaking out against censorship to a foreign journalist, he was banned from publicly performing his work yet again and denied the right to write and publish. Undeterred, Zargana continued to spread his jokes and poetry by word of mouth until his rearrest on 25 September 2007. A mass of international appeals helped to secure his release a month later.
In 2008 Zargana was arrested once more and sentenced to fifty-nine years in prison after making comments to the international media that were critical of the government’s response to Storm Nargis, a devastating cyclone that resulted in almost 140,000 deaths and left millions homeless. Zargana was released in 2011 as part of a political amnesty. He continued to be a fierce critic of Myanmar’s military rulers. Even as Myanmar appeared in the early 2010s to be transitioning to democracy, Zargana remained sceptical, observing in a 2014 interview that ‘soldiers solve all their problems with the gun, not at a round table’.
According to Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, ‘Zargana is Myanmar’s national treasure – he has peacefully campaigned for democracy and respect for human rights in his country all his life. He has been arrested in the past and upon his release, he has cheerfully persisted in his activism. His courage is exemplary.’
In recent weeks, the military has issued criminal charges against dozens of public figures who have expressed support for the Civil Disobedience Movement, which seeks to undermine the junta’s control of the country through nonviolent resistance. Suu Kyi has herself been charged with illegally importing communications equipment. Police said they found six walkie-talkie radios in her home that she was not authorised to possess.
The military has also ordered numerous raids on media outlets throughout the country and the mass arrests of journalists, editors and other media staff. The military junta continues to silence media outlets – it has cancelled the licences of the newspaper 7 Day News, the broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma and the news providers Khit Thit Media, Mizzima and Myanmar Now – and to disseminate pro-military propaganda and disinformation about the anti-coup movement. Writers, journalists, poets, filmmakers and artists have been at the forefront of democratic activism in Myanmar for decades, and as such play a crucial part in the country’s civil society movement.
Appeals could endanger writers’ safety so are not advised at the present time. PEN has condemned the military’s brutal suppression of peaceful protests and called for the release of Zargana and all those detained by the junta in violation of their right to free expression and assembly.
Update: On 14 April, Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the convictions of journalists Ahmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak (LR, April 2018 & October 2020), who were sentenced to ten and a half years’ and eight years and nine months’ imprisonment respectively on trumped-up charges of ‘aiding a terrorist organisation’. Thank you to all readers who sent appeals and messages of solidarity.