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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.