International PEN is appalled by the additional 14-year prison term handed down to leading comedian and poet Zargana on November 27, 2008, added to the 45-year sentence he received a week earlier as part of a major judicial crackdown on dissent. This brings his total sentence to 59 years. He is among a number of leading dissidents to have been convicted in recent days in special courts held inside Insein prison for their peaceful opposition activities, many to staggeringly harsh sentences similar to those against Zargana. PEN condemns these sentences, and demands 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 guarantees the right to freedom of expression.

Background Information

According to the news magazine The Irawaddy, Zargana, who was sentenced to 45 years in prison on November 21, 2008 for violating the Electronics Act, received an additional 14-year prison term on November 27, 2008 for offenses under four sections of the criminal code: 17/2; 32 (b); 295 (a); and 505 (b), for his peaceful opposition activities. Journalist Zaw Thet Hwe, a close associate of Zargana, had his sentence increased by an additional four years at the same hearing, bringing his total sentence to 19 years in prison. A major crackdown in Burma has been underway since early September 2007, following demonstrations led by monks and pro-democracy activists that began on August 19, 2007. Many of those who took part in these protests, including Zargana, poet Saw Wei, musician Win Maw, and journalist Zaw Thet Htwe, have been sentenced in the past two weeks in what the BBC describes as “a judicial crackdown across the spectrum of Burma's pro-democracy movement.”

According to The Irawaddy, sources in Rangoon estimate there are around 40 detained activists, monks and cyclone volunteer relief workers still awaiting trial. More than one hundred of the jailed dissidents have been transferred by Burmese authorities from Insein prison to remote prisons around Burma, creating difficulties for detainees’ relatives to make prison visits.

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 leading a private relief effort to deliver aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis, which struck on May 2, 2008. He is believed to be targeted for his outspoken criticism of the government’s slow response to the cyclone, as well as his opposition activities. 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 that time he was taken up as a main case by the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN. Zargana, whose pseudonym means “tweezers” and refers to his years spent training as a dentist, 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. He was briefly detained from September 25,2007 to October 18, 2007 for his support to the monks demonstrating in the capital, Rangoon.

Write A Letter

  • Expressing shock at the harsh sentence handed down to 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.

Send Your Letter To

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

Please copy appeals to the diplomatic representative for Myanmar in your country asking them to forward it to the authorities and welcoming any comments.

Volunteers may 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.