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Standing up for Burma

Zarganar, the Burmese comedian, and Rambo IV.

Zarganar, the Burmese comedian. Photo: Getty Images

 

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.