A conversation with Zarganar


Written by Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC)

3 March 2012

On a bone-biting cold Saturday afternoon in Toronto, I’ve come to meet Zarganar, the Burmese comedian, poet and activist who has been on and off, on and finally off again, the WiPC main case list for more than twenty years…

Don’t Wake Him Up

When will the door finally click open?
They won’t let me know. Never mind
As long as my heart still beats,
I’ll be free some day…

Zarganar and Marian Botsford Fraser, Toronto, Canada, 3 March 2012 - photo by Jim Ryce
In October last year, the door did finally click open for Zarganar, the author of that poem, then in the fourth year of a sentence that began in August 2008 as 45 years, was immediately extended to 59 years, and then reduced…to 35 years. That poem was written during his first extended prison term; between 1989 and 1994 he spent four years in solitary confinement in Rangoon’s Insein Prison, where he scratched poems on the floor of his cell with shards of broken pottery, before committing them to memory. His most recent sentence was served in a distant northern prison; he was arrested in June, 2008 for criticizing the Myanmar junta’s response to cyclone Nargis. (He’d mobilized more than 400 entertainers to deliver aid to the residents of Irrawaddy Delta).
Photo: Zarganar and marian Botsford Fraser, Toronto, Canada, 3 March 2012 – by Jim Ryce

In October, Zarganar was released as part of a general amnesty. But he says, “I was released but I’m not free.” For one thing, his sentence was only suspended. For another, by his count there are still 324 political prisoners, for whom he campaigns incessantly. But at 51 years of age, Zarganar has just obtained his first passport and is permitted to travel.

It’s showtime, he says.

In the past couple of weeks, he’s been in Washington, Ottawa, Toronto, New York, doing media, meeting with Burmese activists, meeting politicians (Hilary Rodham Clinton, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird) and doing public events, speaking about the upcoming by-elections in Myanmar, on April 1st. “The fools’ election,” he says. Zarganar’s humour is irrepressible. Today, he is doing two events in Toronto, this one called “Conversations with Zarganar” jointly organized by PEN Canada, Amnesty and Ryerson University. Many in the crowd heard him read a single poem two nights ago, and will follow him to the next event at University of Toronto.

He is charismatic, graceful, funny. He has the strong, resonant voice of a performer. He speaks confident, lively English, but just in case, his best friend from kindergarten is sitting in the front row, and is quick to supply a missing word or number. He is candid about his fears and his concerns. The first step is the by-elections; they are only a “narrow opportunity,” but we must enter that way. Then there’s the puzzle, if all continues to go well, of what kind of democracy is right for Burma. He asks us to teach the military that federalism (a goal of some of Burma’s ethnic groups) is not the same as separatism…and then laughs and says, but really, I too know nothing about federalism; teach me about federalism. (It occurs to me that Canadians could also share some jokes with him about federalism.) He is worried about the health of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, with whom he often meets, for breakfast, or late in the day. She is exhausted by the campaigning.

This is a time of cautious optimism.

He tells this story: early in this recent prison term, during the rainy season, when it was very hot, he was suffering from hypertension. He passed out, and was unconscious for about three hours. It was night, the guards were gone, no one could open the cells or call a doctor. It was ten hours before a doctor came; he was hospitalized. When he returned to his cell (days later?), there were forty-nine postcards from supporters around the world. One of them was a caricature of him, drawn by an eight-year-old boy, with three words on it: Release Zarganar Soon. He dug a hole in the dirt floor of his cell and hid the cards. Tomorrow in New York, he will meet that boy, who is now eleven years old.

Zarganar and I also chatted briefly, and he talked about getting the news that he had been awarded the PEN Canada One Humanity Prize, in 2008. Watch the video below.