TO visit Burma's famous comedian Zargana, you must first allow him to do a trick, by necessity. The trick is to dodge government snoops, who stealthily eye his movements. For, as a popular political satirist, he is no joke to Burma's dictatorship. Arrive at his Rangoon home by appointment and you find he's vanished. ``Pssst,'' someone rasps from a dusky corner, ``go to his father's house.''
Across town, his father lets you in. After a while, when the coast is clear, in through the door struts the punster of Burma, out of the tropical haze.
In fact, he's fresh out of jail. During political upheavals in 1988, Zargana was the funny man on the firing line. He told one too many antigovernment jokes to the democracy-chanting mobs.
The uprising in August and September led to hundreds of protesters being gunned down by the Army. Thousands more fled to the hills or were arrested. On Oct. 2, Zargana, whose reputation for wisecracks helped rally the people, was sent to Insein Jail. That notorious Rangoon prison is the stony home for opponents of long-time strongman Ne Win, who took power 27 years ago, ending Burma's young democracy.
During his first week in jail, Zargana was handcuffed, blind-folded, and beaten, he claims. His interrogators especially punished him for jokes that, they feared, tested soldiers' loyalty. He spent seven months in solitary confinement. His guards would not let him speak, perhaps fearing the killing power of his jokes. Never formally charged, he was let out April 21.
During his confinement, a joke went around Rangoon that he had been strung up by his heels and then asked by his guards what he thought of the government. ``I don't know,'' he supposedly said. ``Everything is upside down.''
His self-chosen name, Zargana, means ``hair-plucker'' in Burmese. He's the kind of comedian who feels an audience instinctively, even if it's a soldier poking a rifle into his face during a protest.
In fact, Zargana's front-line wit convinced two soldiers to disobey orders to shoot protesters. ``They were arrested,'' he said.
Humor expresses the truth more than anything else in Burma these days, he says. Cowed by repression and fear, the Burmese have turned to private joking, a kind of pea-shooter revolution. ``The soldiers have guns,'' says Zargana. ``The people have only mouths.'' He took up professional comedy while studying to be a dentist, a low-status profession in Burma and one that he was forced into by the government.
``I had an idea,'' he says in limited English. ``If I want to be prime minister, what subjects do I learn? In your country, I learn economics, international relations, law, etc. But in our country, I must go into the Army. I don't like this.''
So he decided to revive an old tradition in Burma: an Asian version of the court jester who is the only figure allowed to kid the king. That role has been in decline since the monarchy fell in 1885. But with Ne Win in power for more than 26 years, the time was ripe for the revival of a royal gadfly.
``If the government takes a wrong procedure in the morning, we [comedians] can criticize it at night. The vocalists, writers, and other artists cannot,'' he states.
In 1982, he joined a troupe at the University of Rangoon, and soon found fame, traveling village to village. For five years, the government allowed him to perform on the one television station in Burma, but only if he left out his political jokes.
His plays on words are difficult to understand outside the Burmese language. For instance, he tells an audience that when he reads a newspaper with his eyeglasses to see a list of the nation's top leaders, their names become blurred. In Burmese, the word for ``blur'' also means well fed.
Or, he puts on a traditional Burmese hat, now worn mainly by the regime's elite politicos. The hat has a scarf hanging off the right side. In Burmese, ``right side'' also means liar.
In his serious moments, Zargana is not hopeful about Burma's future. ``All Burmese do not want a one-party system,'' says the 28-year-old comedian. ``But they do not know what democracy is. Most think it is just freedom.'' He says many peasants tell him that democracy must be something they can eat.
Taking a cue from ancient Rome, the regime is granting some freedom - freedom to see a circus, theater, rock concerts, or movies. Dancing, however, is still prohibited. Elections are promised for early next year, and the government is in a race with the highly restricted political parties to get celebrities on its side.
Zargana, as one celebrity, prefers poking fun at both sides, although the Army has warned him not to practice political humor again. He says he will risk going to jail again. In the meantime, however, he plans to spend time in a Buddhist monastery, a common practice in a largely Buddhist country.
``In our Buddhism, we must meditate to root out the evil nature,'' he explains. Does he have an evil nature? ``Seven months in Insein Jail - this is evil nature,'' his nimble wit retorts.