David Scott Mathieson: Dictatorships are not known for their sense of humour, nor do they appreciate being laughed at. It came as no surprise then when the ruling military regime in Burma recently sentenced the country’s best known comedian, named Zarganar, to 45 years in prison.
Zarganar (which means pliers in Burmese — he was a practising dentist) was arrested in June for staging private relief operations for survivors of Burma’s devastating cyclone in May, and for speaking out about the poor response by the authorities. These efforts, and his unique blend of sardonic wit and absurd reflections about the crushing repression of the military government, landed him in prison for his third stretch in the past 15 years.
Zarganar’s sentencing is part of an astonishingly brutal campaign by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in Burma to eradicate all political opposition in the country ahead of planned elections in 2010. In recent months, hundreds of prominent activists, Buddhist monks and nuns, journalists, labour activists, bloggers and hip-hop artists have been sentenced to lengthy jail terms. Some of them are facing between 100 and 150 years back in prison, many for their third or fourth times. Even some of the lawyers representing these activists have been imprisoned, for speaking out about the grossly unfair secret trials held in jail or in closed courthouses.
The activists include a brave labour rights representative named Ma Su Su Nyay, who was handed more than 12 years, and Min Ko Naing, the leader of Burma’s 1988 student-led uprising who has already received more than 65 years just on a few charges; his sentencing will probably land him 150 years back in jail, where he spent most of the time between 1988 to 2004 in solitary confinement. Both of them have been past recipients of Canada’s John Humphrey Freedom Award. Continue