This is no joke: The Burmese need to laugh their way to freedom.
Political humor has long been a necessary outlet for the people of Burma (or Myanmar) ever since they began their long struggle against military rule in 1988.
And while Aung San Suu Kyi has been the face of that political fight, it is a famous comedian known as Zarganar (“tweezers”) who has really touched the people with biting wit during his performances in the midst of pro-democracy protests.
Need proof of his comedic clout?
Ms. Suu Kyi was freed Saturday after 18 months of house arrest while Burma’s leading funny man remains stuck in a notorious prison – with more than three decades to go on a sentence. Zarganar was arrested in 2008 after criticizing the military for not doing enough to help the victims of a giant cyclone.
In 1989, after Zargarnar served his first of three prison sentences, I was able to locate him for an interview – but it wasn’t easy. He was in hiding from the government. Just finding him was funny enough.
I went to his house in Rangoon (or Yangon) and after knocking on the door, someone in the shadows whispered, “Psst, go to his father’s house.” So I went across town to his father’s house, and only after a safe period did Zarganar finally make a dramatic entrance, smiling and cracking jokes.
Mind you, this is a guy who had just been strung up by his heels in prison and tortured in many ways – for making fun of the generals. And yet he was ready to keep making wise cracks in public, although he was waiting for the right time.
Being jailed for jokes brought him fame outside Burma – and admiration for his courage. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch took him on as a cause, contacting me for information as I was one of the few Westerners to know him.
It’s difficult to translate his humor into English, as so much of it is a play on words within the Burmese language. But here goes one joke: He would tell an audience that when he reads a newspaper to see a list of the nation’s top leaders, their names are a blur. (In Burmese, the word for blur also means well fed.)
OK, you had to be there.
Zarganar is now the most well-known, or at least beloved, of the remaining 2,000 Burmese dissidents in jail. Suu Kyi was wise to ask for the release of all dissidents after she was set free.
Burma will only start to come out from under the military’s heavy hand when Zarganar and others are finally let go. In the meantime, the Burmese will need to crack their own jokes about their political plight. After all, humor is a great source of unity.
[Editor's note: An earlier version incorrectly gave the day of the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.]