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He kept his quick wit throughout jail terms, torture and solitary confinement, but it seems nothing quite prepared Burma’s most famous comedian for his first trip out of the military-dominated state.
“When I saw the airplane I got a shock, when I saw the airport I got a shock, when I saw the big building and big bridge and good road I got a shock,” he told a packed audience that turned out to hear him in Bangkok.
But it is the faces of young people in neighbouring Thailand — expressing “freedom” and “self-confidence” — that have really stunned the 50-year-old Zarganar.
“Our young people in my country, daily they worry… Their faces are full of anxieties,” he told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand late Monday. “We are neighbouring countries, but quite different.”
During his first short stint abroad, however, the bald and bespectacled dissident is not dwelling on anxiety.
Renowned for his humour in the face of repression and held in jail four times by Burma’s ruling generals, the poet, performer and filmmaker was released from his latest prison term in October and has since finally been granted a passport.
“Now I’m here, this is improvement,” said Zarganar, who on Tuesday was headed to Cambodia before he returns home.
His release, part of a wider prisoner amnesty, was one of several promising moves made by the new nominally civilian government this year that surprised skeptical Burma observers after almost 50 years of outright army rule.
Although elections last November were widely criticised by the West, the new administration’s nascent reforms have been cautiously welcomed and spurred a landmark visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in recent weeks.
“This is watch-and-see time, so we just open the window to watch the government, what they do, what they will do,” Zarganar said.
As the country tries to shake off its isolated status, he said lifting sanctions imposed by the West would lead to more aid from foreign countries “for our people, not for our military”.
For Zarganar and his fellow citizens of Burma progress has been a long time coming.
Born Maung Thura, a year before the army grabbed power in 1962, he worked with several performance groups while studying at dental school and later adopted the name Zarganar, meaning “tweezers”.
He joined the 1988 student-led uprising against the then military dictator Ne Win and was arrested that year, tortured and sent to Rangoon’s Insein Prison, where he was held for several months before being released in 1989.
Since then, he has been arrested three more times for his dissident activities “so I’m very familiar with the prisons, I’m very used to the iron bars,” he said.
He talked about “a very rude and terrible time” during his earlier years of detention, which included five years in solitary confinement without windows, fresh air or even toilet paper — using leaves instead.
Conditions were less horrific during his latest jail term, stemming from his rush to help victims of the devastating Cyclone Nargis that tore through the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008, leaving 138,000 people dead or missing.
As the regime drew global condemnation for refusing aid groups access for weeks, the comedian was among the first bands of local people to get provisions to some of the 2.4 million desperately struggling for survival.
He was sentenced to 59 years’ imprisonment after organising aid-related activities, later reduced to 35 years, and in late 2008 was moved to Myitkyina prison in the remote far north of the country.
It was here Zarganar said he came across a jailed colonel who, back in 1988, had tortured him with kickings, beatings and electric shocks.
“He cried but I smiled. I gave him my hand to shake. Every day I talked a lot to him, I can forgive him.”
Zarganar said he was saddened that his enemy-turned-prison mate remains locked up, alongside hundreds of political prisoners.
“We have to support them morally and financially. It’s very important,” he said.
For all his activism, Zarganar has no intention of running for political office in upcoming by-elections — unlike democracy icon and fellow former prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he affectionately refers to as “Auntie”.
His plans on returning to Burma include an Art of Freedom film festival and a short film, “Hello Democracy”, about his “shock” on meeting the outside world. For him, the key is getting young people into education and politics.
“I love my country and I love my people. To save my people — that’s my own principle, just like that,” he said.