International PEN is gravely concerned for the safety of poet and comedian Zargana, who was arrested on June 4, 2008, after leading a private effort to deliver aid to cyclone victims. PEN seeks urgent information about Zargana’s location and details of any charges against him. PEN also calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all those currently detained in Myanmar in violation of Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects the right to freedom of expression.

Background Information

Maung Thura, best known by his stage name, "Zargana" (also transcribed as "Zarganar"), a leading comedian, poet, and opposition activist, was arrested on the evening of June 4, 2008, after police raided his home in Yangon. Although no reason has been given for his arrest, we believe he is being held for leading a private relief effort to deliver aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis, which struck on May 2, 2008. Zargana was previously detained on September 25, 2007, for his support of monks demonstrating in Rangoon, and was released on October 18, 2007.

Zargana has been working on cyclone relief since May 7, and has given interviews to overseas-based radio stations and other media about his work and the needs of the people. He had also ridiculed state media reports about the cyclone's aftermath. According to his sister, he had used all his own money for the cyclone victims and had sold his and his wife's mobile phones (which are expensive in Burma) to fund the work. He had organized over 400 volunteers to work in some 42 villages that had been neglected since the cyclone struck. The district official who led police to the house said that Zargana's arrest has nothing to do with his relief work but his family has not accepted this.

Zargana is Burma’s leading comedian, popular for his political satires. Zargana spent several years in prison in the early 1990s for his opposition activities, during which time PEN took on his case. The pseudonym Zargana means "tweezers" and refers to his years spent training as a dentist. He was first arrested in October 1988 after making fun of the government, but freed six months later. However, on May 19, 1990, he impersonated General Saw Maung, former head of the military government, to a crowd of thousands at the Yankin Teacher’s Training College Stadium in Rangoon. He was arrested shortly afterward and sentenced to five years in prison. He was held in solitary confinement in a tiny cell in Rangoon’s Insein Prison, where he began writing poetry. One of his prison poems was published in the International PEN anthology This Prison Where I Live.

After his release from prison 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.

There have been many efforts by the authorities in Burma to block not only international relief from reaching cyclone victims but also the domestic donors who stepped in to assist. Zargana is the first leader of local relief efforts to be detained, although there have been reports that local journalists trying to cover the issue have been briefly detained or threatened.

More Information:

Send Your Letter To

While the situation in Burma is still critical, letters sent to the country may not be received or taken as a priority. It is therefore recommended that appeals be sent to the diplomatic representative of Myanmar (Burma) in your own country:

  • expressing serious concern about the detention of writer, comedian, and pro-democracy activist Zargana, and seeking assurances of his well-being;
  • demanding the immediate and unconditional release of all those currently detained in Myanmar in violation of Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Volunteers may also consider writing letters to their national newspapers expressing alarm at events in Burma, and highlighting Zargana’s case to illustrate the many years of repression in the country.