Standing up for Burma

Zarganar, the Burmese comedian, and Rambo IV.

 

What’s the worst outcome of watching Rambo IV? Sitting through 92 minutes of slightly hackneyed action film? Wrong.

At the weekend, I sat next to a man who had been questioned in court over possession of Rambo IV. Because the film chronicles Sylvester Stallone’s attempts to free Americans from a dictatorial regime in Burma, it was understandably unpopular with the dictatorial regime in Burma. And so the Burmese comedian Zarganar was imprisoned for owning it.

This was one of four stretches he spent in prison, on trumped-up offences ranging from having an email account to criticising the junta’s slow response to the deaths of 140,000 people in Cyclone Nargis. In November 2008, he was sentenced to 59 years in prison, later reduced to a mere 35.

In the flesh, Zarganar exudes a sense of calm. He arrived at the theatre on Sunday, with the rain ankle-deep outside, in sandals and a long robe. He shaves his head but lets the hair from a mole on his chin grow inches long. His English is slow and precise. His timing is impeccable. His real name is Maung Thura, and his stage name means “tweezers”: a Burmese proverb says that “zarganar pulls out fear”.

Puns and bunting

Zarganar is credited with revitalising anyeint, a traditional Burmese form of cabaret – pretty dancing girls interspersed with satire and song. But for many years he was unable to practise his craft: he has been banned from performing comedy repeatedly, the latest occasion being in 2006 for talking to the BBC.

This worried me, because I had been seconded as a last-minute guest to the topical comedy panel show No Pressure To Be Funny, at which he was making a rare appearance on stage (he spoke at the Secret Policeman’s Ball in March about Amnesty and the need for freedom of speech).

As it turned out, almost miraculously, Zarganar’s sense of humour translated to Britain. You wouldn’t expect this: the 51-year-old is known in his home country for his mastery of puns, helped by the Burmese language being tonal and monosyllabic. While Mr Bean’s pratfalls resonate around the globe, verbal humour is a tougher proposition – and yet Zarganar owned the room.

He spoke a little of his time in captivity: of how he collapsed from high blood pressure and was left outside overnight, his jailers not caring if he lived or died. He was released on 12 October 2011, along with 200 others, but many others remain in prison and a state of emergency was declared in the western state of Rakhine on 10 June following sectarian violence.

What was Zarganar’s bravest joke that night? “I think your queen is like your government – old and weak,” he told an audience that had barely finished taking down the jubilee bunting.

He wouldn’t have been allowed to do that material on BBC1 last weekend, I reflected. But then I suppose that once you’ve been given a 59-year jail sentence by a military junta, a sniffy editorial in the Telegraph doesn’t quite hold the same terror.

Zarganar, the Burmese comedian. Photo: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge