Peter Popham: It's no laughing matter in Burma

Thursday 16 September 2010 00:00 BST

The generals who rule Burma have much to be proud of. How many other regimes this repressive have produced a world-renowned comedian? North Korean jokers doubtless exist but they have been very backward in coming forward. During the Cold War Eastern European countries produced plenty of jokes, but their authors kept their heads down until they were safely in the West. In Libya, where seven years of fraternisation with Europe has done little to improve the human rights situation, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and his family seem to have a lock on the comic's trade.

So in Zarganar (the name means "tweezers"), the Burmese comedian who is a candidate for the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought this year, Senior-General Than Shwe and his colleagues have a real feather in their cap. Sadly, they don't see it. Last time he was hauled up before their judicial flunkies, he was sentenced to 59 years in jail. The crime? Distributing aid to victims of 2008's disastrous cyclone without a licence. On appeal the sentence was reduced to 35 years. You would need to be fairly drunk to see the humour in that.

Zarganar has his own explanation for his difficulties with the courts. In one sketch set in a cell, a fellow-prisoner asks him, "What are you in for?"

"Don't you know?" Zarganar replies loftily, "I'm the Artist in Residence. Let's say I want to take some time off from my busy schedule. Maybe develop a new film script, or compose some poetry. Then I apply to come here."

Prisoner: "How do you get the residency? Is there an interview procedure?"

Zarganar: "Of course. In 1988, Military Intelligence called me for interview. That's when they broke my teeth. In 1990, it was more like an audition. I told some jokes on stage during the election campaign. They were so impressed, they invited me to stay here for four years ..."

A close friend of the comedian says that, during his time on the outside, many ordinary Burmese saw Zarganar as a loudspeaker for their problems. "He says he would never take a taxi if he was in a hurry," says the friend, "because the driver would invariably drive him round and round and round the block while he told him of his frustrations with the government – in the hope that he would turn them into jokes..."

How Libya floats Italy's boat

Speaking of world-famous comedians, Colonel Gaddafi's navy added an unusual post-script to their leader's visit to Italy last month when it fired 30 bullets into the hull of an Italian fishing boat on Sunday. The ship was operating 35 miles north of the Libyan coast, more than 20 miles inside international waters – but Libya unilaterally claims 72 miles of the Mediterranean as its own, regardless of international treaties. The response of the Berlusconi government, whose commercial relationship with Libya dwarfs even that of BP? "The captain knew he was fishing illegally," said foreign minister Franco Frattini. Italy's home minister Roberto Maroni excused the Libyans with the explanation, "I imagine they believed the fishing boat was full of immigrants." This response may appear to lack humanity, but it showed consistency: it was the leader of Maroni's party, the Northern League, who once urged the Italian navy to fire on immigrant boats.

The ministers have their reasons for kowtowing before Libyan aggression. When the Swiss cut up rough with Gaddafi recently, he urged Switzerland's neighbours to divide the country up among themselves. Libyan friendship is not something you can take for granted. It took years and a lot of money for Italy to persuade the Libyans to stop the outflow of immigrants from their shores – yet despite that agreement, during his recent trip to Rome, Gaddafi threatened to flood Europe with Africans unless he was paid another €5bn (£4.2bn) to stop them.

The Pope needs to do more than simply be nice

It will be too late to make any difference on this papal trip, but perhaps the Vatican should consider investing in a rapid rebuttal unit of the sort that revolutionised British politics when introduced into Millbank by Alastair Campbell many moons ago. At present the Vatican never answers the phone after midday, and rarely has anything substantive to offer in the mornings either.

The papal spokesman, a Jesuit called Federico Lombardi, is much nicer than his feared Opus Dei predecessor, but in the present rabidly hostile climate niceness is not enough. The Pope's enemies – and there are few enemies more ferocious than liberals defending their own intolerance – have discovered that they can accuse him of practically anything and suffer no consequences of any sort.

If such a unit existed it would, for example, point out that Cardinal Ratzinger was not personally in charge of enforcing the church's law on sexual abuse for 25 years but only after 2001 – which was when effective action against the abuse plague began. It would also take issue with claims that many thousands of children were raped by priests in the US and Ireland: as the atheist columnist Brendan O'Neill points out on Spiked Online, a closer look at the statistics shows that of the allegations made by 10,667 people against priests in the US between 1950 and 2002, 1,203 were for alleged rape or attempted rape. A senior European diplomat accredited to the Vatican told me: "79 per cent of paedophile allegations turn out to be unfounded," which would leave a figure of 253, or about five a year. Far too many, certainly.

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