Christian Caryl

No Joke

Burma's famous comedian-cum-activist explains why he can forgive but refuses to forget.

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

A few months ago the Burmese government decided to let a prominent dissident out of jail. One of the first things he did when he got out was to demand freedom for one of his jailers.

I met yesterday with Maung Thura, better known by his pseudonym of "Zarganar." Zarganar is often described as a comedian, but he’s much more than that. Over the years his combined role as a satirist, movie star, and social activist has made him the most famous opposition figure in Burma after Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who is now campaigning for a seat in Burma’s parliament. (For the record, his business card describes him as an "Art-Flavored Politician." The photo above shows him on October 12, the day of  his release.)

Now 50, he has spent 11 of those years in jail (five of them in solitary confinement). He was imprisoned for the first time in 1988, when the ruling military junta shot thousands of people in its effort to disperse pro-democracy demonstrators. One of the people behind the crackdown was General Khin Nyunt, head of the military intelligence agency. Khin Nyunt eventually rose to the position of prime minister, making him the number three figure in the regime.

"When he was a very powerful man, he sent me to jail two times," Zarganar says. He declines to discuss details, but according to some accounts he spent part of his stint in Insein Prison locked up in a dog kennel. Human rights organizations documented countless examples of abuse in Burmese jails during the period. Among the people who gave the torturers their orders was Khin Nyunt.

Like his high-ranking colleagues, Khin Nyunt amassed vast personal wealth through his privileged access to the country’s vast natural resources. And, again like his colleagues, he bore direct responsibility for the myriad brutalities perpetrated by the government against its own population.

He was responsible for the conduct of savage wars conducted against ethnic minority groups. He was responsible for the ruinous policies that helped to reduce Burma from one of Asia’s richest countries to one of its poorest. And he was responsible for the vicious suppression of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the non-violent opposition movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi, after its overwhelming victory in a 1990 election called by the generals to mollify popular discontent.

In 2004, Khin Nyunt lost an internal power struggle. His rivals in the military leadership threw him into jail, then moved him to the purgatory of house arrest.

In 2010, after an election deemed by most observers to be rigged, one of Khin Nyunt’s former comrades, a general by the name of Thein Sein, laid down his uniform, installed himself at the head of a new civilian government, and declared his intention to lead the country toward democracy. Last October, striving to underline its eagerness for reform, the government released hundreds of political prisoners — including Zarganar, who was serving a 35-year-sentence imposed in 2008 for the heinous crime of organizing private aid to the victims of a cyclone that had taken 140,000 lives.

As soon as Zarganar emerged he began publicly calling upon the government to show its good faith by releasing the rest of the political prisoners in its custody. But, much more controversially, he also demanded freedom for Khin Nyunt. On January 13, another batch of prisoners was let out — and so was the general.

"When he was released the general asked to thank me," Zarganar says. Burmese culture prizes respect for one’s elders, so it was the younger Zarganar who was expected to come to the general, his senior by 20 years. "So I visited his house and accepted his thank-you."

The house turned out to be a mansion, lavishly furnished. A wall of the room in which the two men met was occupied by a huge flat-screen TV. Zarganar noticed a late-model iPad lying on a table, and counted the boxes from more than a dozen mobile phones stacked in a corner. These luxuries attested to the wealth that Burma’s rulers have accumulated from their years of control over the economy. "Whenever his followers entered the room," Zarganar says, "he gave each of them 10 U.S. dollars" — a nice gift by the standards of the impoverished Burmese. So much for sanctions.

Even if the government moves ahead with its opening of the political system, the generals are likely to keep their hold over many of the economy’s choice assets. When I ask Zarganar if the opposition is willing to accept such trade-offs for progress towards democracy, he smiles ruefully. "This is a very critical time," he says. "We have to move forward with negotiations. We cannot make demands like that. This is the time of trust-building. The government is more powerful than us."


He’s right, of course. Even if Aung San Suu Kyi wins her bid for a seat in parliament, she and her fellow NLD members will still be vastly outnumbered by other lawmakers who were elected under rules drawn up by the generals. But at least the opposition will finally have a voice. That counts for something.

The meeting between Zarganar and Khin Nyunt lasted 15 minutes. The general offered no refreshments to his guest. "He didn’t offer me coffee, or water, or beer," Zarganar says, laughing. The general did, however, thank the comedian for lobbying on his behalf.

But did Khin Nyunt offer any apologies for putting him in jail all those years ago? Zarganar sidesteps the question. Discussions of that kind should remain private, he says. If the general wants to apologize to the Burmese people, that is something that should be done in public.

So far Khin Nyunt has opted to hold his tongue (perhaps under pressure from his former military colleagues). But it could yet come to that. Zarganar says that there will be no way to avoid some sort of reckoning with the past. Putting officials on trial might not be the right approach, he says. There are better ways: "I like and support truth and reconciliation. The people who did criminal things must admit their misdeeds. They must admit their misdeeds and apologize to the people."

His post-prison travels include a stop in Cambodia to examine how that country has dealt with the traumas of its own recent history. He declares himself particular impressed by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which serves as a national repository for information about the 1970s genocide there.

And on the day we spoke, here in Washington, Zarganar had just visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It’s all part of a private quest to understand how to help his own country to cope with the traumas of so many years of authoritarian rule. "We can forgive, but we cannot forget."

Memory, indeed, has many uses: "Democracy is not strange for our people. Before 1962 we had many experiences with democracy and democratic government. So we are ready. But we have to make it" — he searches for the right word — "sustainable."

That’s precisely the challenge. Burma’s rulers — most of them, at least — understand that the cost of maintaining absolute power can only be extremely high. "They can control the military, they can control the parliament, but they cannot control the public," says Zarganar. But that’s not the whole story.

The leaders are also aware of the desire for revenge harbored by many of their own citizens, and that fear compels them to tread cautiously. For all the progress that Burma has made within the past few months, many of the most repressive laws of the old regime remain on the books. "They let me out of prison but my sentence remains in effect," Zarganar says. "I still have 31 years and four months to go. If I’m arrested again, I’ll have to serve the rest." Under current law, you can still receive decades of jail time for reading or writing an email deemed to be subversive by the government.

Zarganar prefers to look forward. He wants to see a Burma that respects both the economic interests and cultural identities of the ethnic minorities. He wants to see a country that allows its own people to prepare themselves for active participation in the global community. And though he declines to join a political party for the moment, he does not rule out the possibility of one day running for political office. If all goes well, he says, Burma could achieve the status of a full-fledged democracy by the year 2020.

That seems optimistic. But if this man can summon up optimism, surely the rest of us can.


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