Burmese comedian and film director Maung Thura better known by his professional name Zarganar highlights Burma’s progress on free speech, censorship and political detention at the same time he is pessimistic that those advances in democratic freedoms could be threatened by an upsurge in ethnic violence.
He wrote this commentary for Britain’s Guardian Newspaper.
As a comedian, poet, film-maker and loudmouth, I often fell foul of the censors in Burma, where I was a political prisoner four times. Sometimes it was through deliberate provocation, such as my insistence on trying to include kidnap scenes in all of my films, where at some point the good guys would exclaim “we must free that lady!”, a thinly veiled act of resistance which caught on in the industry and became obligatory for many film-makers during Aung San Suu Kyi’s imprisonment.
My most recent sentence was for 35 years, imposed for criticism of the Burmese government’s woeful response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008, and from which I was released last autumn as part of a mass amnesty. Yet I have also been imprisoned simply for using the internet. It might be interesting to learn that communications were policed by people who understood little about the technology they were patrolling. I don’t think it takes a comedian to see the funny side of police confiscating my computer screen, but leaving the hard drive. Freedom of expression has been rigorously denied for a long time, but Burma is very definitely changing and, in this new world, new challenges are presenting themselves.