It's no joke

Political prisoners - William Cook on two Burmese comics imprisoned for spreading "false news"

Humour is a serious business, but at least British comics can crack jokes about their government without ending up in jail. However, there are countries where wisecracks about reactionary juntas aren't just right-on rhetoric, and where Big Brother is more than the title of a dreary docusoap - countries such as Burma (or Myanmar, as it has been called since 1989), where two comedians are serving seven-year prison sentences.

U Pa Pa Lay and U Lu Zaw belong to an Anyeint troupe called Myo Win Mar, or Our Own Way. Anyeint is a Burmese performance genre that blends classical dance and music with skits and satire. The tradition dwindled after Myanmar's State Law and Order Restoration Council (now called the State Peace and Development Council) seized power in 1988, but latterly it has been revived by a celebrated Burmese comic called Zargana, who has also done time for cracking jokes during Anyeint shows.

On 4 January 1996, the 48th anniversary of Myanmar's independence, Our Own Way performed for 2,000 members of Myanmar's opposition party, the National League for Democracy, at the Yangon (Rangoon) home of the NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the past decade in prison or under house arrest, since the government ignored an NLD election victory in 1990. Our Own Way sang songs about the generals, satirised state repression and told gags about government co-operatives: "In the past, thieves were called thieves. Now they are known as co-operative workers."

"The jokes they made about the military were extremely mild," says Donna Guest, Amnesty International's res-earcher responsible for Burma, who has followed events in Myanmar for the past 11 years. Burmese humour has to be indirect, because there is such extensive censorship. "There is so much intense surveillance in that country, it's hard for us to imagine," she says. "People have to be extremely guarded."

In a land without an independent press, live performers can reach an illiterate and technologically disenfranchised audience without access to television or the internet. "The dance troupe will tell the truth," said Our Own Way. "People call us jokers, but now we're going to achieve democracy; we'd rather be called comedians for democracy." Their aim: "To open the eyes and the ears of the people. That is our job."

Pa Pa Lay and Lu Zaw were arrested, denied legal representation, and not allowed to call or question witnesses. They had called NLD members, including Aung San Suu Kyi, but these witnesses were not allowed to travel to the trial in Mandalay; they were told that their train had broken down. When NLD members reached Mandalay, they found the courthouse closed. The trial took place in prison. Pa Pa Lay and Lu Zaw were given seven years each for spreading "false news", and sent, in shackles, to break rocks in a labour camp. Prolonged sleep deprivation was reportedly used during their interrogation. Their case is far from unique. "Anybody voicing peaceful dissent is arrested in Burma," says Guest. "The government is intent on crushing any kind of objection to its policies, so they are among hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who are in prison for their peaceful political beliefs."

Lu Zaw is now believed to be held in Mandalay, where it is thought he is being made to work on an airport construction site. Pa Pa Lay, who was also imprisoned for 20 months in the early 1990s, is in a prison camp in the far north of Myanmar. "He's had a rough time there, but we do know that he has been keeping his spirits up," says Guest. "He is finally able to receive visits from his family." But his circumstances remain bleak. "Prison conditions are appalling. They don't get enough food, they get almost no medical care and, if they get medicine, it usually has to be their families who provide it." Poor health is typical. "They are in very cramped quarters. They are often tortured for breaking arbitrary prison rules." Even prisoners who escape such punishment don't receive proper care. NLD members, students and ethnic minorities are all vulnerable, but it isn't just native Burmese who suffer. James Mawdsley, a UK-Australian joint citizen, is serving 17 years in a Myanmar jail. "He didn't do anything wrong in terms of international law," says Guest. "He was just protesting peacefully." He recently lost his latest appeal.

But where there's life, there's hope. Since last year, the Red Cross has been able to visit Burmese prisoners and, although restrictions remain, Amnesty has met with Myanmar diplomats. Although dozens of elected NLD MPs remain in prison, five have been released recently. Amnesty has found that polite letters from ordinary people across the world have proved very powerful in improving conditions and securing releases from regimes that, however repressive, know how worldwide opinion can influence foreign tourism and investment. "The government hopes that the world will forget about them," Guest says of these two truly alternative comedians. "It is good for the government of Burma to realise that people in the outside world are concerned."

Civil letters, asking for the immediate and unconditional release of U Pa Pa Lay and U Lu Zaw, as well as medical care while they remain in detention, should be sent to: General Than Shwe, Chairman, State Peace and Development Council, c/o Ministry of Defence, Signal Pagoda Road, Yangon, Union of Myanmar. Letters should begin "Dear General"

Amnesty International can be contacted on 020 7814 6200; www.amnesty.org.uk. James Mawdsley's website is www.insideburma.freeisp.co.uk/index.html