Wednesday, November 26, 2008

“Pull Them Out With Tweezers”

The Irrawaddy News
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Despite their crucial role in assisting survivors of Cyclone Nargis, local aid groups in Burma have become the target of an ongoing crackdown on activities deemed inimical to the interests of the country’s ruling regime. Twenty-two volunteer aid workers have been arrested in connection with their relief work in the Irrawaddy delta, where the cyclone struck on May 2-3.

Recently, six of the detained volunteers—Zarganar, Zaw Thet Htwe, Ein Khaing Oo, Tin Maung Aye, Thant Zin Aung and Kyaw Kyaw Thint—received lengthy prison sentences for their efforts on behalf of victims of the disaster.

Of this group, Zarganar is undoubtedly the best known in Burma. He is the country’s most popular satirist, noted for directing his acerbic wit at the generals who have ruled for the past two decades. Last Friday, he was sentenced to 45 years’ imprisonment for criticizing the regime’s response to the humanitarian disaster in the delta.

The comedian was arrested in June while contributing to the spontaneous private relief effort that stepped in to fill the vacuum left by the authorities, who were more interested in going ahead with a referendum on a constitution designed to legitimize military rule.

It would be an understatement to say that the regime did not appreciate the efforts of ordinary citizens who came to the rescue of those less fortunate than themselves. Fearing that dissident groups would take advantage of the situation to foment unrest, the junta soon moved to clamp down on unauthorized do-gooders.

“The military government doesn’t allow any opposition groups to operate [in the cyclone-affected area] or exert influence,” said Aung Thu Nyein, a researcher from the Thailand-based Vahu Development Institute. He added that the ruling generals would not tolerate anyone who reminded them of their failure to help their own suffering people.

It came as no surprise, then, that the authorities were quick to arrest Zaganar, who has been an agitator for change since the nationwide uprising against military rule in 1988.

Imprisoned in 1990 for four years, he has nonetheless continued to challenge the junta’s right to rule. Last year, when thousands of monks gathered to protest the regime’s policies, he was one of their most outspoken supporters.

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, Zarganar was critical not only of the junta, but also of the United Nations. “I am not happy with the UN,” he said in an interview with The Irrawaddy. “Why are they so concerned with the government’s endorsement of their relief work? They should have taken more risks.”

Others agree that the international response to the regime’s abuses leaves a great deal to be desired.

Describing the jailing of Zarganar as “a cruel joke on the Burmese people,” Brad Adams, the Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, added that it was “a bigger joke on those abroad who still think ignoring repression in Burma will bring positive change.”

Although the UN says that it hopes to “build trust” with the regime through cooperation in the relief effort, local and international NGO workers in Burma say that the ongoing crackdown on volunteers shows that the junta is more interested in maintaining control than in helping people.

“The government’s imprisonment of humanitarian aid workers sends the message that Burmese social organizations must follow the junta’s regulations whether they like it or not,” said a Rangoon-based social worker.

While private donors and humanitarian aid workers face arrest and imprisonment for acting on their own initiative, government-backed organizations like the Union Solidarity and Development Association are free to coordinate with international aid agencies, providing them with access to resources and opportunities to profit from the relief effort.

Despite his long history of persecution at the hands of the authorities (which included a three-week stint in jail last year for making public offerings to protesting monks), Zarganar has shown no signs of bowing to his oppressors.

Perhaps this is because his stage name is taken from a Burmese slogan that was popular during the struggle against British colonial rule: “If you have hairs that stand up when you are afraid, pull them out with tweezers.”

Zarganar (“tweezers” in Burmese) knows better than most that the only way to confront your fears is by plucking them out at their roots.

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