November 21, 2008

Senior General Than Shwe
Chairman, State Peace and Development Council
c/o Ministry of Defense
Union of Myanmar

Your Excellency,

On behalf of the 3,300 members of PEN American Center, an international organization of writers dedicated to protecting freedom of expression wherever it is threatened, we are writing to condemn the 45-year sentence handed down to comedian and poet Maung Thura (aka Zargana).

According to our information, on November 21, 2008, Zargana was sentenced to 45 years in prison for violating the Electronics Act. He was arrested on the evening of June 4, 2008 after leading a private relief effort to deliver aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis. He is believed to have been sentenced for his outspoken criticism of the government’s slow response to the cyclone, as well as his peaceful opposition activities.

This is not the first time Zargana has been targeted. He was first arrested in October 1988 after making fun of the government, but freed six months later. On May 19, 1990, he impersonated General Saw Maung to a crowd of thousands at the Yankin Teacher’s Training College Stadium in Rangoon. He was arrested shortly afterwards, and served a five-year sentence, part of which was spent in solitary confinement in a tiny cell in Insein Prison. After his release in March 1994, Zargana was banned from performing in public, but continued to make tapes and videos which were strictly censored by the authorities. In May 1996, after speaking out against censorship to a foreign journalist, he was banned from performing his work altogether, and stripped of his freedom to write and publish. He was again briefly detained from September 25 to October 18, 2007 for publicly supporting the monks demonstrating in Rangoon.

PEN American Center is deeply shocked by the harsh prison sentence imposed on Zargana, and believes his conviction to be part of wide crackdown against dissent in direct violation of Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression. We therefore renew our call for his immediate and unconditional release, as well as the release of all others currently detained in Myanmar solely for peaceful expression of their views.  

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Hannah Pakula           
Chair, Freedom to Write Committee   

Larry Siems
Director, Freedom to Write and International Program

CC: His Excellency U Myint Lwin
Chargé d’Affaires
Embassy of the Union of Myanmar to the United States
2300 S St. NW
Washington, DC 20008

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