Wednesday, November 26, 2008

45 Years for a Joke

In Burma, laughing at your leaders can be a crime.

"If I did not laugh I should die," Abraham Lincoln once remarked. It's a concept the people of Burma understand well. One of their most famous celebrities is a comedian known for his antiregime jokes who goes by the name Zarganar, or "Tweezers."

The junta that rules the country, however, doesn't appreciate Zarganar's sense of humor. Last week, he was sentenced to 45 years in jail for using the Internet to spread "disaffection" toward the government. Translation: laughing at your leaders can be a crime. More than 2,000 political prisoners are in jail in Burma, nearly double last year's number, according to human-rights workers.

Zarganar is one of about 100 pro-democracy activists, monks, lawyers and entertainers who have been sentenced this month. The harshest sentences have gone to monks who helped organize the Saffron Rebellion last year, but no one has gotten off light -- one antigovernment blogger got 20 years.

It may seem curious that the junta has waited until now to mete out these sentences. But regime critics say this is part of Than Shwe's master plan. He's making sure dissidents are out of the way for the country's "elections" in 2010. These will be the first elections in Burma under a new constitution, which is designed to guarantee that the military stay in power, regardless of the popular vote. He needn't worry about the opposition. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, has been under house arrest for most of the past two decades.

Zarganar used to tell a joke set in heaven. Various world leaders meet God and ask when their greatest ambitions will come true. Each cries when God tells them they will not live to see it. When General Than Shwe meets God, he asks when Burma will have enough water and electricity. In response, God cries.

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