Stand Up for Burma: This Prison Where I Live

Robinson O’Brien-Bours /

As chaos grips the Arab world and the international community’s focus, the United States and other world leaders should not forget about the ruthless military junta in Burma.

The Heritage Foundation recently hosted British filmmaker Rex Bloomstein and his latest documentary, The Prison Where I Live. The film contrasts the lives of two famed comedians: Michael Mittermeier of Germany and Maung Thura of Burma, better known as Zarganar. It reveals the cruel barbarism of the military dictatorship in Burma and how it victimizes those who dare to speak out against it.

“No one thinks that Germany has comedians. A German comedian is like a cockroach cleaning the kitchen,” jokes Mittermeier in the film. “Nobody knows there are comedians in Burma [either].” Zarganar is the most famous comic in Burma, known for his acting, writing, poetry, jokes, and stand-up comedy. A dentist by trade, he quickly gave up dentistry decades ago for comedy: “A dentist can open only one mouth. When I make a joke, I can make everyone open their mouths!”

However, Burma’s military leaders would prefer those mouths remained shut. In fact, they have gone out of their way to ensure that Zarganar’s voice is silenced. He is banned from television, film, and stage; his writing has been outlawed; it is even forbidden to write his name on paper. He was once tortured for seven days after joking about the government and thrown into solitary confinement for five years. He was even forbidden from attending his mother’s funeral.

Through it all, Zarganar remains unbroken in his determination to continue his work. He believes that he is a “loudspeaker” for his people, and that he represents their hearts. He uses humor to make ordinary people dare to think about politics, claiming that jokes “ignite the brain of the people.” When asked where he gets his courage, the comedian looks confused. “Courage? This is not courage. This is ordinary people’s spirit.”

Today, Zarganar is being held in the Myitkyina Prison on a 35-year sentence, accused of disturbing the public order. His wife and daughter, who were also in attendance at the Heritage Foundation event, said that the family has been unable to visit or even contact him for eight months. Despite a health scare when he was denied treatment for 10 days after collapsing in prison, Zarganar is healthy, his daughter says, and his will to live remains undiminished.

“They can crush a body, but they cannot crush a spirit, they cannot crush a heart, they cannot crush a mind,” says Mittermeir in the film. “That is why they fear Zarganar.”

The United States must show Zarganar and the people of Burma that it supports them in their struggle for liberty. The United States must let the illegitimate junta-led government know that the human rights atrocities committed against its own people during the Buddhist monk-led “Saffron Uprising” of 2007 are not forgotten.

As the actions of the Arab dictators show, the Obama Administration’s previous desire to “engage” oppressive regimes is unworkable and dangerous. President Obama and his Administration need a serious policy that continues to pressure the regime to release political prisoners like Zarganar, stop these violent crackdowns, and work with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to begin a peaceful transition to true democracy. President Obama should also work on convincing India and China, Burma’s biggest trading partners, and ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to exert their own pressure on the military junta. It’s an uphill struggle on all three accounts, but at the very least the effort would put America on the right side of history.

As Bloomstein pressed after the presentation of his film, “Agitate. Promote reform. Bring attention to these human rights abuses. You can’t just sit. You can’t just be a bystander.” We can begin with one clear demand to the junta in Burma: Free Zarganar.

Robinson O’Brien-Bours is a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm