He's survived jail, revolution and the wrath of army generals, but Burmese comedian Zarganar confesses appearing on stage with Bono has been his most recent trial.
Maung Thura, better known as Zarganar, is Myanmar’s most famous comedian whose biting satire has formed part of a 30 year struggle against the ruling military junta.
His stage name literally translates as ‘‘tweezers” and it is said that Zargarnar “pulls out fear.”
Zarganar is a household name in Burma, famous for his movies, writing and comedy
However he had to face his own despair after he was sentenced to 59 years behind bars in 2008.
He was imprisoned for speaking out against the government to highlight the plight of millions left homeless after a cyclone devastated the Irrawaddy delta.
The normally upbeat Zarganar admitted his time in prison was “very miserable” telling the Huffington Post UK:
“I felt very depressed, because my mother was dying and I wasn’t told. After the death, I wasn’t even allowed to go to the funeral.
“I was very ill also, it was a very bad time.”
Zarganar’s illnesses were largely ignored, and the 51-year-old was only taken to Myitkyina hospital 10 days after he spent hours unconscious in his cell.
Doctors found that he had dangerously high blood pressure, inflammation of the spine and an enlarged heart.
Zarganar said he found it difficult to remain optimistic after he was imprisoned, but postcards from Amnesty International helped
An international campaign to free political prisoners, backed by both Amnesty international and Aung San Suu Kyi, led to his release less than 9 months ago.
Since then he has campaigned with indomitable spirit for the rights of Burmese people, travelling worldwide and meeting with ministers, supporting Myanmar as it takes its first steps towards democracy.
Zarganar has relentlessly campaigned on behalf of Burmese people since his release, from setting up mobile learning units to visiting universities abroad and arranging for professors to teach in Myanmar
He talks of the “hidden courage” that drives him on, telling Huffington Post UK:
“In our Burmese tradition, there is something just like a sixth sense. Literally it is translated as hidden anchorage.
“It seems I have another spirit no one knew about and this comes out when needed.”
Zarganar talks on the phone after his release from prison
However Zarganar sheepishly admitted that sometimes his courage abandons him, none more so than when he was about to meet Bono at a recent Amnesty International concert in Dublin.
Though both he and Aung San Suu Kyi were special guests he says he was “very afraid and anxious” because the stage was “very big, and also Bono is a very great man.
“But then this invisible courage came out when I got on stage and I was making jokes and none of the other guests were able to speak at all,” Zarganar confesses with a throaty chuckle.
Zarganar was a special guest at the Amnesty International concert in Dublin, alongside Aung San Suu Kyi
However he claims his priority is politics, not comedy. Top of his agenda is education.
“This is a transition time for our country, a fragile period. It has always been ‘art flavoured politics’ and right now our country needs people who want reform.
“My vision is the 2020 election, when our young people will capture the new spirit of our country. "
Zarganar claims Burma needs to shift its focus and be driven by understanding rather than emotion.
“When I participated in the 1988 revolutions, I was a dentist. I took part because I didn’t like the military, I didn’t like recent conditions and I didn’t like the government.
“I participated in that revolution with only emotion. However now is not the time for emotion, now is the time for education.”
Zarganar was released from prison in October last year
His words are even more prescient in wake of violent clashes that have broken out on Burma’s border with Bangladesh.
Violence between the Buddhist Burmese and the Rohingya, Burma’s minority Muslim population, took place in in Rakhine state just as Zarganar arrived in Britain.
Over 50 people have now been reported dead and thousands have been left homeless after conflict supposedly sparked by the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by Muslim men.
Martial law is now operating in Rakhine state, something which worries Zarganar.
“All authority could be handed to the military if these problems spread through the country, which is a step backward.
“People are very worried about this [situation in Rakhine state] because they have encountered very many violent things already and we don’t want the army to take power again."
Some of the devastation after violence ripped through Rakhine state
The sadness Zarganar feels over the recent suffering is etched on his face. However he soon becomes animated, his passion to help “our people” shining through as he says that whilst in Britain he has been acting “as detective.
"Even while here, I am gathering information. My friends visited everywhere: they are meeting with Islamist leaders and Buddist monks and they told me everyone in Rakhine state doesnt want violence, that this violence is created by one group and they cannot trace, track or chase that group, so they think this is a special plot.”
Despite the recent turmoil, Zarganar is upbeat about Burma’s future, and is especially happy with the international attention the country has received.
"It is very good that everyone is very interested in our country, that they want meet with Burmese people and they want to listen to the country’s recent conditions."
All he asks of the UK is “recognition and condemnation” telling the Huffington Post UK:
“Whether people are interested in Burmese affairs or not, that is not dependent on me. However I do want to ask people to recognise our Burmese people and government, and praise them if they do good things and if they do bad things, please condemn.”
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