zargana“The soldiers have guns.  The people have only mouths”

I’d been teaching about nonviolent symbolic actions in Burma using stories from the Bible.  At the break one woman told me about a man walking around the city with a fancy silk shirt over a tattered and dirty longyi, the long skirt-like garment Burmese men and women wear around their legs.  I asked what that garb might mean, and she gave me a social analysis about the wealth of the military elites being supported by the suffering of the poor.  I asked, “Have you seen this man yourself?”  She said, “No.”  Nevertheless people were buzzing about this man’s clothes as a social statement.  I said, “That’s the power of symbolic action!”

As the man hung upside down in the notorious Insein Prison, guards asked what he thought of the government. “I don’t know,” he said, “Everything is upside down.” In Burma, formally known as Myanmar, one of the leading voices for peace and justice is a comedian known by his stage name of Zargana. Finding him on stage or in the street is difficult because he spends so much time in prison.

Born Maung Thura, he adopted the name Zargana, which literally means “hair puller” or “tweezers.” He revived the ancient Burmese role of court jester to poke fun of the military dictators who have ruled the country with a brutal hand since the coup of General Ne Win in 1962. “The soldiers have guns. The people have only mouths.” So he has used his mouth with its deep warm voice and even silent symbolic actions to make the most powerful statements for truth in a country known for fearful silence.

zargana-2In 1982 the young dentist turned comedian joined a troupe of actors at the University of Rangoon which traveled to villages. That exposure developed his reputation, but Zargana came to prominence as an activist during the 1988 democracy uprising. He addressed the crowds with his comedy routines. Sometimes just his clothing was a statement as he would come on stage with the traditional hat of the elites, but with a scarf hanging on the right side. The word in Burmese for “right side” also means “liar.” When the military cracked down on the uprising, killing hundreds if not thousands of people and sending thousands more into exile, Zargana was among those arrested. He was spent 7 months in solitary confinement at Insein Jail, suffering torture. He was forbidden to speak as the guards feared the power of his jokes to undo their own loyalty to the regime.

Between his stints in prison, including a four and a half year term in the early 1990s, Zargana continued to mock the government. Though his performances have been banned and censored, he has found ways to get his message to the Burmese public. When a stilted National Convention was held to write a new constitution that followed the dictates of the military, Zargana hosted a National Beggars Convention. He was seen walking around the capital dressed in a fancy dress shirt with gold chains, while wearing a torn and dirty longgyi, the traditional skirt for men and women in Burma, and going barefoot. His silent commentary about the wealthy being supported by the poor masses sparked much discussion among the general population.

Cyclone Nargis tore through the Irrawaddy delta region in 2008, killing tens of thousands of people. The military sealed off the area and refused to let aid get through, blocking international relief efforts. Zargana, who had just been released from prison for his involvement in the September 2007 protests by Buddhist monks, organized an effort with hundreds of volunteers from within Burma to get food, water and other supplies to the struggling survivors of Nargis. Then he spoke to the world media about the plight of the millions left homeless from the storm, too sorrowful for humor. For these crimes he was arrested yet again and sentenced to 59 years in prison. He was sent to a prison in a distant promise where reports emerged of his declining health. International human rights organizations have called repeatedly for his release.

His religion has been a source for sustaining his courage in the face of on-going repression. He would seek time at a Buddhist monastery to meditate on how to root out the evil nature. When a reporter asked if his jokes had the power to change things, Zargana replied, “I don’t think so, not directly anyway. All they can do is ignite the brains of the people.”