Lucy Popescu

Zarganar, Zaw Thet Htwe and U Zeya

Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s democracy movement, may have been freed from house arrest, but many writers and prisoners of conscience continue to languish in Burma’s prisons. On 21 October, English PEN is organising a poetry protest outside the Burmese Embassy from 12pm in order to raise awareness of the plight of those currently detained in violation of their right to free expression (details can be found at www.englishpen.org).

Burma’s leading comedian and performance poet is Maung Thura, who writes as Zarganar (LR, Oct 2008). Throughout his career, he has used his comic skills to draw attention to political repression in his homeland, and has spent several years in prison for his opposition activities.

He started writing poetry during a four-year period of detention that began in 1990. Held in solitary confinement in a tiny cell and forbidden to read or write, he was forced to scratch his poems on the floor of his cell using a piece of pottery and dust mixed with water. He then committed the poems to memory, before sweeping away the evidence. Following his release in March 1994, Zarganar was banned from performing in public, but continued to make tapes and videos that were strictly censored by the authorities.

In 1996, after speaking out against censorship to a foreign journalist, he was banned from performing his work altogether, and denied the freedom to publish. Undeterred, Zarganar continued to spread his jokes and poetry by word of mouth, until his rearrest on 25 September 2007 for his vocal support of the monks demonstrating in Yangon. This time Zarganar’s notoriety and a mass of international appeals helped to secure his release a month later.

After Cyclone Nargis struck the country on 2 May 2008, causing tens of thousands of deaths and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless in the Irrawaddy Delta, Zarganar was appalled at the regime’s slow response. Angered by their neglect and misrepresentation of the full scale of the tragedy, he gave interviews to overseas radio stations, ridiculing state media reports. On the evening of 4 June 2008, after he had led a private effort to deliver aid to cyclone victims, Zarganar was arrested once again.

Shortly after Zarganar’s arrest, journalist Zaw Thet Htwe was also detained. Thet Htwe had been working alongside Zarganar to deliver aid and support to the victims of Cyclone Nargis. He was arrested on 13 June 2008 while visiting his sick mother in central Burma and transferred to an interrogation centre in Yangon. Thet Htwe was sentenced to ninteen years in prison for two offences, under sections of the Video Act and Unlawful Associations Act.

In November 2008, Zarganar was convicted of ‘public order offences’ and sentenced to fifty-nine years in prison, later reduced to thirty-five years. During the hearing, it was reported that the prosecutor submitted photographs of Zarganar which, 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. After sentencing, Zarganar was moved to Myitkyina Prison in northern Burma, 1,500km from his family home, where he remains today.

More recently, on 4 February 2011, U Zeya – who writes under the pen name Thargyi Maung Zeya – was sentenced to thirteen years in prison. The fifty-seven-year-old poet and journalist for Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a media organisation based in Oslo that provides uncensored news about Burma, had led a team of video journalists inside Burma. U Zeya’s son Sithu Zeya had been arrested for taking photos of the bombings of the Yangon water festival. After days of torture, Sithu had reportedly confessed that his father worked for DVB. According to U Zeya’s lawyer, the only witnesses in the closed prison court were police.

Readers may like to send appeals calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Zarganar, Zaw Thet Htwe and U Zeya, detained in violation of Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights; seeking assurances of their wellbeing; and calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all those currently detained in Burma in violation of their right to free expression to:

His Excellency Mr U Kyaw Myo Htut
Embassy of the Union of Myanmar
19a Charles Street
Berkeley Square
London W1J 5DX
Fax: 020 7629 4169
Email: melondon@btconnect.com

Zarganar was awarded the inaugural PEN/Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage in 2009.

It’s lucky my forehead is flat
Since my arm must often rest there.
Beneath it shines a light I must invite
From a moon I cannot see
In Myitkyina.
Zarganar, Myitkyina Prison, 2010
(Translated by Vicky Bowman)

Update: On 24 August 2011, Russian investigators of the murder of journalist Anna  Politkovskaya (LR, Nov 2006) announced that they had arrested a former police officer on suspicion of involvement in her killing. Although this is a positive development, some, including Politkovskaya’s newspaper Novaya Gazeta, have expressed reservations about whether the authorities are willing to investigate higher level officials who may also have been involved.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter