Dissidents in Burma have last laugh

WHEN WORD reached General Ne Win, Burma's feared despot, some years back that a comedian nicknamed 'Tweezers' was poking fun at him, he ordered the secret police to bring the comedian before him.

'Now let's hear the kind of jokes you make about our government,' the general snapped. Without hesitating, the comic, named Zargana, reached out and whipped the pair of spectacles off Ne Win's face, put them on and began mimicking the general. There was stunned silence. Scores of the general's foes had been tortured and tossed into prison for much lesser impertinences.

But the silence lasted only a few seconds. General Ne Win grinned, then laughed. The general's laughter was not often heard; his rule, from 1962 to 1988, was fearsome. Even today, aged 84 and retired, his orders are still obeyed by the ruling military council.

Nevertheless, he let the comedian go - for a while. As one top government official explained, 'The military liked it at first. Then, when things blew up in 1988, they didn't like Zargana so much.'

General Ne Win lacked the levity and self-assurance to keep a jester at his court. He much preferred the company of astrologers. An uprising against his repressive and often dotty policies - he was so obsessed with his lucky number nine that he dropped the decimal system and changed banknotes to denominations of 45 and 90 - led to the political emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The daughter of Aung San, Burma's independence hero, became the focus of a long-suppressed desire for democracy. Zargana's mother joined the National League for Democracy, led by Suu Kyi, and it was while cracking jokes at a political rally, campaigning for his mother in 1990, that Zargana was arrested. He was hauled before the chief of military intelligence and told: 'Let's see how funny you are in prison.'

We don't know how many laughs he got among the prisoners. Although he has just been released, Zargana, 33, was warned by the junta to keep his mouth shut. It could prove difficult. He is irrepresible.

Trained in Rangoon as a dentist, he started telling jokes to his patients trapped in the chair. Soon, his needling political satire made him famous. Zargana is one of more than 100 poets, artists and intellectuals imprisoned for criticising the regime. Many were arrested without trial under the catch-all category of 'maintaining contacts with unlawful associations'. The number of political detainees runs far higher - into several thousands, according to human rights activists - and includes Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for more than four years, even though she won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

'It is not power that corrupts but fear,' Suu Kyi once said. And indeed, the military regime retains its grip on the Burmese through a vast web of spies and informers. They infest the univerities, government offices and every level of the military.

Laughter may be fear's only antidote, but the Slorc - an appropriately sinister acronym for the State Law and Order Restoration Council, a 21-member military council that seized power in 1988 - is not known for its sense of humour or its ability to face criticism.

Before anything is published, even children's stories or historical essays on Buddhist monks, it must pass the censors at military intelligence, not known for their literary talent. What is blue-pencilled is often bizarre, Kafkaesque. The word 'sunset' is often banned since it can be considered an attack on Ne Win, whose name means 'Brilliant as the sun'. The word 'red' is also suspect, since it smacks of communism.

One dead female novelist's photograph was removed from a book jacket because the censors thought she resembled Suu Kyi too closely. A poem about a football match in which the referee was biased earned its author a jail term. 'The censors always take the breath out of the story,' said one writer. 'But what can we do? If we don't write, our pens will dry up.'

Rumours spread that, while in prison, Zargana had his teeth kicked in - the bully's usual riposte to a wisecrack. When he was released, Zargana simply remarked: 'I've grown allergic to green' - the colour of army uniforms.

While the other arts wither under the military regime, a few comedians still thrive, partly because of the subtle nature of Burmese humour. In Burmese double entendre, even a compliment can be twisted into an insult. This way, the generals are never sure whether they are being honoured or ridiculed.


Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Serge Pizzorno of Kasabian and Noel Fielding backstage at the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts
musicKasabian and Noel Fielding attack 'boring' musicians
videoWatch Lynda Bellingham's tragic final Loose Women appearance
A view of today's Spanish papers
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
The last great picture - Winner 'Black and White' and overall 'Wildlife Photographer of the Year'

Arts and Entertainment
High notes, flat performance: Jake Bugg

Review: Despite an uphill climb to see Jake Bugg in action, his performance is notably flat

The Putin automaton will go on sale next month in Germany
videoMusical Putin toy showing him annexing Crimea could sell for millions

Powerful images of strays taken moments before being put down

Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 pose for Children in Need 2001
Arts and Entertainment
'Right Here' singer Jess Glynne is nominated for Best Newcomer at the MOBO Awards 2014
musicExclusive: Jess Glynne hits out at 'ridiculous' criticism of white artists nominated for Mobo Awards
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Brand has written a book of political analysis called Revolution

Review: Witty banalities aside, the comedian has an authentic voice

Arts and Entertainment
Separated at birth? Frank Sivero (left) claims The Simpsons based Mafia character Louie on his Goodfellas character
arts + entsFrank Sivero sues Simpsons studio over allegedly basing mobster character on Frank Carbone
Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward (right) with former 'Washington Post' executive editor Ben Bradlee

The Washington Post editor helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down President Nixon

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Support Analyst - London - £22,000

£20000 - £22000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chel...

Learning Support Assistants-Nantwich area

£8 - £9 per hour: Randstad Education Chester: We are currently recruiting for ...

Primary Teachers-Northwich area

£85 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Primary Teachers- Northwich Ar...

Primary Teachers-Northwich area

£85 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Primary Teachers- Northwich Ar...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London