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Forgive but don't forget, Myanmar comedian-turned-activist says

Zarganar, a comedian who is now a political activist, focuses on ways to ensue the atrocities of Myanmar's past are recorded and not forgotten by future generations.

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Zarganar's voice croaked from overwork and he apologized for the state of his apartment – with books and papers scattered on the floor and no furniture in the living room – and the constant ringing of his mobile phone.

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He's been busy. In January he organized Myanmar's first film festival and screened a documentary about the military's crackdown on the 2007 protests, an unprecedented event in a country previously known for its iron-like grip on the media and intolerance of dissent.

He continues to call for the release of more than 470 remaining political prisoners. He’s also providing money, food, and clothing to current and former political prisoners and their families who are struggling to make a living.

He set up a company to produce documentaries, is involved in a biopic about Myanmar's founding father, General Aung San, and travels abroad and within the country extensively, taking his messages to international donors and the Burmese diaspora.

Zarganar had a specific appeal to foreign donors looking to ramp up their assistance to a country where a third of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.

"Please scrutinize carefully to ensure that the money gets to the people who are actually doing the work," he said, adding that civil society in Myanmar is still in its infancy.

Myanmar changing

The Burmese have seen Zarganar transformed from a dentistry student telling jokes at university fairs to a successful comedian and national treasure, and now a fierce critic of the government.

Despite his outspokenness against the government, he said it was equally important to applaud the authorities when they did something right.

For example, last year, in what was one of the first signs of Myanmar's new era, President Thein Sein bowed to public pressure and cancelled the Myitsone dam being built on the Irrawaddy River by the Chinese. Power generated from the $3.6 billion project would have gone to neighboring China

"That was good, and we should encourage them to do more good things like that," Zarganar said.

He still has misgivings towards the year-old nominally civilian government, especially over its treatment of former and current political prisoners, but said the situation in Myanmar has improved vastly.

The government has been lauded by the international community for introducing unprecedented reforms since coming to power last year. Its efforts to reform have also prompted the European Union and the United States to suspend their sanctions.

"There's a lot more opportunity to do things and more authority to speak," he said.

"I was only released from prison seven months ago. I've been working nonstop since. Some say I'm going too fast. But I think I'm actually quite slow," Zarganar concluded. "I have a handicap – I spent 11 years in prison."

• You can read the full interview on AlertNet.

This article originally appeared on AlertNet, a humanitarian news site operated by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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