RANGOON—He is a dynamo with the shaved head of a monk and a twinkle in his eye.
He is feted and honored in world capitals as a former political prisoner who never lost his voice for justice and human rights through the dark days of oppression in Burma.
Between trips abroad, he’s managing a media center to promote journalists, writers, and documentary producers; producing a movie with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi about her father; trying to solve one of the country’s thorniest ethnic conflicts; campaigning for the release of all remaining political prisoners; and introducing stand-up comedy to Burma.
Perhaps most important, he’s an outspoken advocate of compromise with the very men who, as generals in Burma’s former military dictatorship, threw him in prison four times for a total of 11 years for refusing to be silenced.
All this and sleeping many nights on the floor of his Rangoon office.
“I’m so busy,” says Zarganar, the one-time dentist who, after the dictatorship killed thousands of anti-government protesters in 1988, emerged as an unrelenting comedian–critic of the regime.
Zarganar spoke with me in the conference room of his new media center, a five-story building on Bo Aung Kyaw street in downtown Rangoon. So precious is his time, appointments are required for all but close friends.
Outside, his staff was busy with preparations for a stand-up comedy night dedicated to poking fun at the former regime. Some of the comedians are just home from exile.
With the evolution toward democracy in Burma, neither Zarganar nor his comedian friends nor the audience of some 250 will have to worry about government agents breaking in to arrest them.
“They’re no longer around,” he said. “Now we just tell them what we are going to do, and do it.”
'An important time'
Zarganar will change from the t-shirt he is wearing into more traditional Burmese garb before introducing the comedians, whose satire will take aim at the ineptitude, stupidity, corruption, and cruelty of the old regime.
The event will mark a small step in the evolution of freedom of speech in the new Burma, part of the national catharsis after so many years of oppression and fear.
“The change has been quick,” Zarganar says. “But you have to remember we waited 50 years for it to happen. To that extent, it’s been slow in coming.”
“This is an important time in our country,” he told me. “Old opponents have to be friends. This is the prime time to push forward. We can’t fight each other. If we fight, we can’t solve our problems.”
The need for reconciliation is a theme Zarganar preaches when he goes abroad to receive awards from Amnesty International and other human rights organizations.
It’s a belief he shares with Aung San Suu Kyi, his partner in a biopic about her father, Aung San, one of the country’s founding fathers, and with the nation’s new reformist president, Thein Sein.
A general and prime minister in the old dictatorship, Thein Sein released Zarganar from prison and then asked him to serve on a 27-person government fact-finding commission into the ethnic violence in Rakhine state, on the border with Bangladesh.
“Thein Sein is a smart guy,” Zarganar says. “He needs good advice from good advisers…. I trust him. If we can’t trust him, it won’t work.”
Yet he laments the fact that not all of his fellow political prisoners have been released, as he was, in October of 2011, after being sentenced to 59 years for blogging about the government’s lack of response to Cyclone Nargis in early 2008. Some 140,000 Burmese perished in the storm.
“I can’t forget our political prisoners,” he says. “Unfortunately, this seems to be a step-by-step process.”
Zarganar says conditions for political prisoners have improved from the first time he went to jail, in 1988. Then he was kicked and beaten.
“I have nothing to criticize about it now,” he told reporters after his release. “I was imprisoned four times, and this last time, I felt as though I were in a religious hall.”
Path to change
Toward the end of our meeting, with his cellphone buzzing and his assistants lurking, I asked Zarganar whether he was bitter toward Than Shwe, the former dictator who imprisoned him and the others, more than 2,000 in all.
Quite the contrary, he said, for he set in motion the country’s move toward democracy.
Zarganar said Than Shwe’s “seven steps to democracy,” criticized worldwide as a sham to extend military rule, have instead provided the tentative groundwork for the changes now pervading Burma.
After all, he said, it was Than Shwe the dictator who appointed Thein Sein the reformer and instructed the army to not interfere.
“This is a good symbol for Than Shwe,” Zarganar said. “We should recognize him.”
Not all Burmese are ready to go that far, yet.
Tyler Chapman is a regular contributor to RFA.