Burma jails comedian for 45 years

Rap star also imprisoned as ruling junta cracks down on popular dissidents

Secret courts in Burma have sentenced a popular comedian and a hip-hop star to hefty jail terms as the military regime cracks down on its dissidents, from monks to celebrities. The comedian Zargana, detained in June for criticising the government's slow response to Cyclone Nargis in interviews with foreign news groups, was sentenced to 45 years in jail.

A court inside Rangoon's notorious Insein prison convicted Zargana, an outspoken satirist who has already been jailed four times, of violating the Electronics Act. The sentence was part of a new round of political imprisonments which appear to be aimed at eliminating all opposition to the junta before 2010 elections. Police seized Zargana's computer and banned films including the latest Rambo movie, which features Rambo taking on Burma's ruling generals.

The rap star Zayar Thaw, 27, a member of the band ACID, was given a six-year sentence for belonging to a political youth group that was formed during the anti-government uprising which the army brutally stamped out last year. Thaw is known for his stage presence and clever lyrics, in which the trivial takes precedence over bold political statements. "They talk about what's real, not politics, but everyday life. The problem is, everyday life here is bad," said Thida, 23, a student at an English-language college in Rangoon.

More than 100 activists, including Buddhist monks, students and members of the opposition National League for Democracy have been convicted in the past two weeks and dispatched to squalid jails. None of this has been reported in the country's state-controlled and heavily censored media.

At a DVD street stall in Rangoon yesterday, two students laughed as they tried to translate the popular ACID track "Tell Us", which berates Burma's young people for sticking to the conservative dress code of their parents. "They hear us," one said. "They know us and how we feel."

The student had heard nothing about Thaw's arrest and conviction. "Why?" he asked, and then fell silent.

A recording of an ACID gig in front of a heaving crowd in a Rangoon park shows Thaw and his band mate Yan Yan Chan, also believed to be in custody, in the hip-hop uniform of low-slung jeans, sunglasses and baseball caps. While they focused on the mundane, their lyrics inevitably touched on the hardships of life in Burma, drawing them into dangerous territory.

Amnesty International says the junta holds more than 2,100 political prisoners, a sharp rise from nearly 1,200 in June last year, before the pro-democracy demonstrations.

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