On the night of June 4, a group of police officers came to a house in suburban Rangoon, searched it and took away one of the occupants. But the person they took is not a wanted robber, murderer or escapee. He is a comedian.
Although Zarganar (pictured above at left, with fellow actor and social activist Kyaw Thu) is famous in Burma for his antics on stage and screen, he has not been joking much lately. Instead, he has been at the front of local efforts to get relief to where it has been needed most since Cyclone Nargis swept through his country a month ago.
Zarganar, whose adopted name means “pincers”, has thrown everything into the relief effort, organising hundreds of volunteers in dozens of villages to help in giving out food, water, clothes and other basic necessities to thousands of people.
His sister told Voice of America that he had sold his and his wife’s mobile phones to use the money for the work, and that as the monsoon is setting in they had just purchased seeds to distribute in order that villagers who have nothing to plant might at least grow vegetables and stave off hunger.
He has also been a vocal critic of the government response to the cyclone, constantly pointing to the shortfalls in assistance and needs of survivors.
“The odor [of death] sticks with us when we come back from the villages,” Zarganar told The Irrawaddy news service on June 2, a full month after the cyclone struck.
“Nobody can stand it, and it causes some people to vomit. How could people find edible fish and frogs in that environment?” he asked, in response to an editorial in a state-run newspaper that survivors did not need foreign aid as they could catch and eat small animals instead.
Although perhaps the most outspoken, Zarganar is not the first person to be detained over the cyclone response—or the lack of it.
In mid-May, at least eight journalists from local periodicals who were doing their best to gather news and report on the tragedy without running afoul of the censors were held overnight at an army camp in the delta. They were released, but not before being threatened and having their digital photographs deleted.
Back in Rangoon, the reporters’ editors were also told to stop covering the extent of damage and instead publish articles on rebuilding efforts. The warnings had the desired effect. Journals that were the week before packed with images of hungry, tired and frightened people sheltering in monasteries instead concentrated on the setting up of emergency camps and delivery of supplies.
Meanwhile, authorities continue to constrain and prevent domestic donors from getting where they want to go.
At the end of May, some blocked a bridge into Rangoon and impounded vehicles that were returning from taking goods to the needy.
Monks who tried to deliver food from other parts of the country also found officials interfering with their every move, wanting to make it appear that they were the ones responsible for the largesse.
And international agencies have corroborated reports from many areas of people being evicted from temporary facilities and being told to go back to homes that they no longer have.
Zarganar has a home, but he is nowhere to be found in it tonight. Not for the first time, he is in a cell somewhere, awaiting news of what will happen next.
The last time he was released, after getting involved in the monk-led September 2007 protests, he was in good humour, punning about the regime’s hypocritical religious rites and the dogs that kept him awake while being held in an army barracks.
He may not find so much to laugh about this time. The scale of the ongoing disaster and the urgency with which relief is still needed seemed to have been too much even for Zarganar’s big funny bone. His customary deep laughter was absent from interviews he gave in the days before being taken away.
Burma’s new constitution may insist that nobody can be held for more than a day without going to a court or being charged, but as Zarganar knows full well, the gap between what is said and done in his country is far too large for such words to be taken seriously, although that is no laughing matter either.
The volunteers may have to do their best without him for a while. There is no guarantee that Zarganar will be home after two days, or any time soon after that.
See also: Leading comedian working for cyclone victims arrested (AHRC)
Why was Zarganar arrested? (VOA Burmese)