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"MOVEMENT SIMMERS UNDER ASHES": INTERVIEW WITH BURMESE COMEDIAN ZARGANAR

Mizzima News interviews renowned comedian, actor and director Zarganar ("Tweezers") who was released from detention on 17 October. He was arrested on 25 September in connection with offering alms the day before to the protesting monks in their ex-communicative boycott of the junta at Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon.


How is your health?


I'm suffering from emphysema, which I got when I had to sleep on a concrete floor in prison.


We heard that you were put in a military dog cell. What kind of place is this, and how long were you there?


A military dog cell is a special cell for prisoners who commit crimes in prison: beating each other or committing murder in prison, drug use, sodomy, etc. These criminals are shackled and sent there for further punishment. They are put in isolation and solitary confinement. There are about 30 Alsatians guarding this type of cell, so it is called a military dog cell.

The measurement of the cell is about 8'x10'. You cannot see outside. There is no proper ventilation and sometimes it's too cold. I was made to sleep on a wooden board. I could not have a bath for the first two days. The food is terrible, as are the living conditions. There is no proper toilet. I had only a dining plate for both urination and excreta. I could use this plate only once for the whole day as it was filled after a single use. I had to spend seven or eight days there. I got pneumonia.

Then I was taken to No. 5 Special Ward. The living conditions were better there. I got an 8" high cot there and slept on it. There was also a 2'x6" bathroom in the room.


Did you have roommates?


No, I was alone in solitary confinement.


Where you tortured?


The living conditions were terrible. If they tortured me there, I would have died. We could see nothing: no stars, no moon.


Did they interrogate you?


The main interrogation lasted only one night on the first day. That first night, they interrogated me from 8pm to 6am as they thought I knew something. But they did not question me on a daily basis. They asked me some questions in the following days for a few hours only just to harass me. They kept waking me up. They called me when I went to bed. Sometimes they moved chairs and tables when I was asleep. I don't know why they did these things.


What did they ask you?


The questions are routine. "Who was with you?" "What did they do?" I answered them, I knew only myself, and I knew only what I did. There were no one from our film and art circle with me and no one came to me.


Tell us how they arrested you.


They came at about 12.20am. First they said they came to check the residents and guest registration (called "midnight check" in Burmese). It's really funny. Then I said to them, "Please don't waste my time. Have you come to arrest me?" I took clothes and some medicine with me.

I had been hiding in a place belonging to Ko Maung (Actor Kyaw Thu) and Ko Aung Way (poet) that evening. I could not think and had to return home before the curfew time of 9pm. The raid and search team consisted of eight people led by West District Police Major U Soe Thein, along with three inspectors, one sub-inspector, a station house officer from Sanchaung police, and two ward-level PDC members (Peace and Development Council, local level administration of the military junta). They brought no arrest and search warrant.


Did they search your house?


Yes, they searched my house thoroughly and messed up my room. But they didn't seize my computer - only my mobile phone, and said it would be returned later.


Then what happened?


First, they took me to the Insein prison annex. I spent the whole night there. The following morning, they took me to the Aungthapyay interrogation centre. I spent three or four days there. Then they took me to Insein prison's military dog cell.


Did you sign any bond or give any pledge to them for your release?


It's very strange. They didn't tell me I would be released; they just said I would be transferred to a prison in another town. I said nothing to them. I thought if they transferred me to another prison, it would be a visit to another place at their expense. When we reached the main gate they told me I would be released. They took me back to my home in a car escorted by five police majors. They said nothing to me.


Have you been watched since your release?


Yes. There are three types of surveillance: the USDA (Union Solidarity and Development Association, a social welfare movement formed and supported by the military junta), Swanahshin and police. The police mean police plus ward-level PDC members. They keep watching me from some teashops and snack shops in front of my house. The ward-level PDC members told me what they would do so in advance. I don't care about them. Let them stay and watch. I go out as usual.


We heard that the authorities banned 19 writers and artists from writing and performing for offering alms to protesting monks at Shwedagon. Who are they?


They include writer Sayama Than Myint Aung, poet Aung Way, writer Zaw Thet Htwe, Mar-j, Oo Swe, Sein Nee (chief editor of "Padauk Pwint Thit"), Tin Thit (editor of "Padauk Pwint Thit" magazine), Daw Ahmar, Dagon Taryar, cartoonist Awpikye, comedian Ko Po Phyu, editor Ko Win Nyein, actor Ko Kyaw Thu and me. The films and videos of Ko Kyaw Thu which were shot before his arrest were rejected after a censor board screening.


How does the ban affect these writers and artists?


I have been banned for nearly two years now. It affects our livelihood. How can we survive without work? We know nothing about other trades. We can't learn how to fire a gun at this age. The ban brings a lot of trouble to writers and artists. As for the people, they have to suffer too; they cannot read the works of these writers and cannot see the films of these artists.


Most of the leading students and monks have been arrested. Do you think the movement has ceased?


As far as I know, we cannot say the movement has ceased. It is simmering under the ashes. It's just temporary, it cannot be stopped, and the movement is simmering in the hearts and souls of the people.


How does the shock and injury of the people contribute to the movement?


It has two sides, both positive and negative for the people and the country. I think it is good. My children who are in their early 20s can't believe the atrocities committed in the 1988 uprising when I tell them about it. They think we are exaggerating and lying. Now they have seen what happened with their own eyes. Now they realise we are not lying - only telling them the truth and facts.


The SPDC (Burma's ruling State Peace and Development Council) has appointed a Relation Minister and opened communication channels with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi after UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari's visit to Burma. Also, there are mass rallies and marches in support of the government, and the curfew and ban on public gatherings of five people or more have been lifted. Can things return to normal?


Not yet. The recent protests are still in everybody's heart. They cannot disappear easily. People are still talking about them. The government-backed marches are just a show as they were in the past. And now the authorities are up to the same tricks, which have no effect and are known by everybody. For example, U Aung Thaung of the Ministry of Industry called film director Mee Pwar to accompany him to the mass rallies being held in his native home of Myingyan district. He wanted to say his native place didn't take part and join in the recent protests.

The state-run TV and newspapers are not for our people, they are for the soldiers. No one is interested in their propaganda. One hundred percent of the people don't believe in it.


If the recent protests are still simmering, can the movement revive again?


We do not only have the option of taking to the streets and marching. We have other means. The movement will reemerge in different forms. If SPDC gives us what we want, there will be no more protests. But if they give us what we do not want, it will reignite the movement. No one can forget what they saw and what they encountered in the recent protests. It may not re-emerge in the same form as in the recent protests, sacrificing a lot of lives and damaging a lot of livelihoods. It will appear in a different form. It is premature for me to say what will be the form of the struggle. But the chance of re-emerging of the protest and movement is sure.

(Courtesy of Mizzima News, http://www.mizzima.com)

(30 October 2007)

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