THE BLOG

Burma's Junta Doesn't See Humor in Zargana's Comedy

05/25/2011 12:55 pm ET

When it comes to comedian Zargana, no one's laughing.

Any person who has ever performed knows how hard this can be. In comedy, moments of silence feel like an eternity.

But Zargana, whose real name is Muang Thura, has a very tough audience. You see, the silence isn't due to lack of skill - his sharp wit has been critically acclaimed. It's not because his words are boring - his writing has won international words. And, the moments don't feel like eternity.

They feel like 45 years to be exact.

This is because Zargana's audience is Burma and that country's military Junta is less than impressed with his political satire.

Zargana is no stranger to the inside of a Burmese prison cell. But, this time, the comedian, poet and dissident went too far. He was incarcerated for criticizing the government's response to Cyclone Nargis and leading a private relief effort.

On Nov. 21, he was sentenced to a prison term of 45 years with no chance of parole.

That's three weeks after Republican presidential-nominee John McCain appeared on Saturday Night Live. That's also two weeks after Tina Fey retired her spot-on impression of Sarah Palin.

Mark Twain once said, "The human race has one really effective weapon and that is laughter." We here in North America have the power to wield that weapon live from New York, every Saturday night. But around the world, it is met with imprisonment and repression.

"It's not enough to say we are lucky to have these freedoms," says Marian Botsford Fraser, programs associate with PEN Canada, an organization that advocates for freedom of expression. "We have to use this freedom to protect people like Zargana and pressure our own governments to stop these terrible crackdowns."

Political satire has long played an important role in the commentary on our political system. Comedy carries with it an element of truth. It makes us think critically and commands accountability. We've seen that through Jon Stewart's criticism of the War in Iraq. Since 1970, the Royal Canadian Air Farce has impersonated our leaders, drawing our attention to their policies and making us think twice when casting our ballots.

But, these comedians have done it while drawing ratings and without the fear of imprisonment.

Zargana's story starts off similarly. In the late 1980s, the former dentist (Zargana means "tweezers") began his career as a comedian, appearing on Burmese television farcically detailing the failures of government. His programming received high ratings and delighted fans.

Then in 1988, Zargana was arrested for taking part in the nationwide uprising demanding democracy. He would spend the next few years in and out of jail as the government stepped up its brutal campaign of repression.

Zargana's "crimes" are eerily similar to our regular programming. In 1990, he was imprisoned for impersonating General Saw Maung, former head of the military government. His videos and poems have been banned in public.

His latest offense ─ the one that carries the 45 year penalty ─ involved organizing a group of entertainers to provide disaster relief.

"It's just heartbreaking that a man who was actually in the act of helping people was arrested," says Fraser. "He was doing the work the government was supposed to be doing."

You would be hard-pressed to find a person in North American who would label Tina Fey's job as dangerous or expect to see Rick Mercer imprisoned (unless it's part of a sketch, of course).

But, it's our job to make sure we don't stay silent. If laughter is our greatest weapon, then we have the tools for change at our disposal.

The world is waiting for the punch line.