Two men the junta could not silence

One is in exile, the other jailed for criticising Burma's dictatorship. Yet the release of a scathing poem shows artists Zarganar and Htein Lin are still a thorn in the regime's side

When Burmese authorities sentenced the popular comedian and artist Zarganar to spend 59 years in jail, they must have hoped to silence a man known for criticising the junta. Yet, though the man celebrated for his films, plays and poetry was dispatched to a jail far from his family's home in Rangoon, it appears that life behind bars has not reduced either his creative powers or his willingness to speak out.

In recent weeks, a newly crafted poem – brief but powerful – has been smuggled out of jail and passed to friends of the 49-year-old artist. It reads:

"It's lucky my forehead is flat

Since my arm must often rest there

Beneath it shines a light I must invite

From a moon I cannot see

In Myitkyina."

The poem, which hints at the hardships endured by prisoners in Myitkyina jail in the far north of Burma, was received by Zarganar's friend Htein Lin. The Burmese artist, a former political prisoner who now lives in the UK, not only translated the poem into English with the help of his British wife, but also produced a compelling illustration to accompany his friend's lines. The striking image suggests his friend at the bars of his jail cell, his head pressed into his forearms. It is set against a backdrop of hands, reaching upwards.

"I met him first in 1984 at university and we became friends. We later worked together," said Htein Lin. "I spent six-and-a-half years in jail. When I came out from prison I had no place to go. Zarganar gave me the chance to live with him. He also showed me how artists can use computers to help their work... I felt I had to do the illustration."

Zarganar, who was born into a middle-class, intellectual Rangoon family, first started performing and organising theatre productions when he was a student. In doing so, he was stepping into a long tradition of artists and comedians in Burma who have used their platforms to gently prod and satirise the authorities. He was so popular that he regularly appeared on television, even though one of his plays, Beggar, poked fun at dictator Ne Win, who died in 2002.

The artist finally fell foul of the authorities and was arrested and jailed when he took part in the massive democracy demonstrations of 1988, starting a long-running game of cat-and-mouse that stretched over the next two decades. He was first banned from putting on theatre shows and then, in 2006, prevented from participating in any artist productions.

Yet it was the aftermath of 2008's Cyclone Nargis that led to his current jail sentence. With the government's response inadequate, Zarganar was one of many Burmese citizens who took it upon themselves to work together to collect and distribute food and other essentials to hundreds of thousands of people in the Irrawaddy Delta whose homes and livelihoods had been destroyed by the storm.

He was arrested after speaking to foreign journalists about the government's lack of action, telling Irrawaddy magazine that the authorities had tried to prevent groups such as his from collecting aid for those in need.

"At the beginning we took risks, and we had to move forward on our own. Sometimes we had confrontations with the authorities," he said at the time. "For example, they asked us why we were going on our own without consulting them and wanted us to negotiate with them. They said they couldn't guarantee our lives."

Confronted with mounting criticism of their response to a natural disaster that had killed an estimated 135,000 people, the junta jailed dozens of dissidents, journalists and critics. Zarganar was sentenced to 59 years, a term that was subsequently reduced to 35 years. The artist is now held in Myitkyina jail in Kachin state, around 900 miles from Rangoon.

As with many political prisoners, Zarganar was imprisoned far from his home. Anna Roberts, of the Burma Campaign UK, said it was a systematic policy by the regime that had been stepped up after the 2007 democracy demonstrations.

"It's part of the punishment policy of the regime," she said. "The diet and medical facilities are so poor inside the jails that political prisoners in particular depend on their families for extra supplies. The regime has developed the policy of sending political prisoners to remote prisons. It means it is difficult and expensive for families to visit."

News of the new poem comes as a documentary about Zarganar by the British documentary maker Rex Bloomstein, This Prison Where I Live, is to be premiered later this month at the Munich Film Festival. Mr Bloomstein, whose previous works have examined various human rights issues and the Holocaust, said he met Zarganar in Burma three years ago.

"I found him one of the most remarkable people I have ever filmed. He really is a remarkable man – fearless, incorruptible," said Mr Bloomstein. "He is a wonderful example of the Burmese spirit. This is the way [the junta] is trying to crush that spirit, but they won't."

Htein Lin, who was included in a recent project on Burmese political prisoners by the award-winning photographer James Mackay, said he hoped to hear more from his friend, despite his incarceration. The comedian is one of more than 2,100 political prisoners that human rights groups believe are languishing inside Burma's jails.

"For me, it was not a surprise when I heard he had written the poem. I know him very well and during a [previous] time in jail he wrote an entire movie script in his head. As soon as he came out of jail he produced the film and people were saying, 'When did you write that script'," he said. "But he had worked on it when he was in jail, every day. All the time he is working. That is why this was not a surprise. I know he is creating a poem or a joke every day."