Cyclone relief no laughing matter

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.

Source: Cyclone relief no laughing matter

See also: Leading comedian working for cyclone victims arrested (AHRC)

Why was Zarganar arrested? (VOA Burmese)

VIDEO footage of Zarganar and team distributing assistance (VOA Burmese)


8 responses to “Cyclone relief no laughing matter

  1. Zarganar still under detention
    Mizzima News Tuesday, 10 June 2008 19:35
    ( Interview with his mother-in-law Daw Kyi Kyi Soe )

    News circulated some corners in Rangoon that famous comedian and actor Zarganar (tweezers) was released from detention on Monday and is now under house arrest. He conducted relief efforts actively providing relief supplies to cyclone victims.

    Mizzima tried to contact him last night, but in vain. Mizzima, however, got in touch with his mother-in-law Kyi Kyi Soe today. She said that the news of Zarganar being released is not true and his family members still do not know his whereabouts. Huai Pi contacted and interviewed his family member.

    Q: We heard that Zarganar has been released. Is it true?

    A: This is just concocted news. We still don’t know his whereabouts since he was taken from here. His wife, who is in the US called me at 2 a.m. today after seeing the news of his release on some websites. The news also said that he has been put under house arrest after being released from detention. I told my daughter this was not true. I am answering your phone call from his bedroom staying with my granddaughter’s pet dog. I am not lying. I am telling the truth. He has not yet been released.

    Q: What do you think about Zarganar’s detention?

    A: The authorities forced Zarganar to sign a pledge on 28th October last year not to talk to the media. After Cyclone Nargis struck Burma, he did relief work and talked to the media. I think this is the reason why the authorities took him away.

    Q: Are there any surveillance teams outside your residence?

    A: Yes, a lot, but I don’t know the exact number. I don’t know to which units they belong. Yesterday two police officers came to my home. One was from the West District Police Force and was of captain rank. Another one was a police inspector who always watches and monitors Zarganar.

    Q: Did you ask them about Zarganar?

    A: Yes, I asked them but they could not answer. They said that they also don’t know about Zarganar. They were responsible for monitoring Zarganar’s movement and had to hand him over to the higher authorities on that day. An unknown couple asked my younger daughter Ma Nyein to harbour a youth aged about 23 at our home as they have been fired and are unemployed at the moment. We happily accepted this boy and he is living together with my two grandchildren. We simply thought it is a good deed to provide food to anyone who is in trouble. He reached our home just three days before Zarganar was taken away. He accompanied Zarganar in his relief campaign to cyclone-hit areas.

    He was out of the house when the police came and took away Zarganar. Our neighbours informed him about Zarganar ‘s arrest when he came back. He left immediately. I don’t know where he’s gone. He’s left here himself. We don’t know even his name. We simply called him ‘Kadone’ (clean shaven head).

    Q: Did the police visit your home again in the meantime?

    A: They came and asked about this youth on the 6th of this month. I told them I don’t know about him as he has not come back since that day. I told them we don’t know about him and his parents. I am worried about the police visiting the couple and inquiring about the youth. They are simple persons like Zarganar. The police came at noon and searched all three bedrooms.

    The police said that they have to take away my daughter Ma Nyein and the youngest one if we cannot find this youth. My youngest daughter is suffering from heart disease and she is nervous and timid. She was shocked and collapsed when the police said this. Only after that, a woman police sub-inspector, a woman police sergeant and other personnel who came to our home when Zarganar was taken away, left our home at about 10 p.m.

  2. Editor aiding cyclone victims arrested by Junta
    Wai Sann Sunday, 15 June 2008 21:59, Mizzima

    The Burmese military junta continues to harass and detain people and despite odds have gone out of their way to help victims of Cyclone Nargis. In its latest instance of intolerance it arrested a journalist on Friday, who had been helping survivors.

    Zaw Thet Htwe, the former editor of a weekly sports journal was arrested in his home town, Minbu, according to a close relative according to a close relative who refused to be quoted by his name.

    “They [local authorities] came and arrested him and blocked mobile phone connection,” he said.

    Zaw Thet Htwe was visiting his native town after delivering some kitchen utensils for cyclone victims in the Irrawaddy Delta.

    No official reason has been given by the authorities. Nevertheless, Zaw Thet Htwe’s arrest is thought to have a link with Zarganar’s arrest last week.

    The well-known outspoken comedian was arrested after his team was caught supplying food and shelter to cyclone victims. The authorities confiscated relief money along with the VCDs of records of his team’s activities in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

    It is not the first time that Zaw Thet Htwe has been arrested on November 2003 . He was charged with sending reports to the International Labour Organization and sentenced to life imprisonment. However, the Supreme Court quashed the sentence later against him due to pressure from the ILO.

    Till date, it is not known where he has been taken. His home in Rangoon was reportedly stormed by the special police and his phone connection was also cut off.

    Some reports said he was being detained in an interrogation camp in Rangoon after being transferred from Minbu Township.

  3. Arrested: Volunteers Who Bury the Dead
    By MIN LWIN Thursday, June 19, 2008, The Irrawaddy

    Seven Burmese civilian volunteer aid workers, members of a team known as “The Group that Buries the Dead,” were arrested on June 14, following their efforts to bury victims of Cyclone Nargis.

    Among those arrested are Lin Htet Naing, Hnin Pwint Wei, Hein Yazar Tun and Aung Kyaw San, the group’s leader, according to Tun Myint Aung, a member of the 88 Generation Students Group. Three unidentified volunteers in the group were also arrested.

    Aung Kyaw San, the chief editor of the Myanmar Tribune weekly journal, and his volunteer team of several dozen people undertook the grim task of removing some of the many corpses that still lie in the rivers and fields throughout the Irrawaddy delta.

    The bodies, which had badly decomposed since the cyclone struck on May 2-3, were given simple cremation or burial rites.

    “They worked to clean up the bodies around Bogalay,” an aid worker close to the group told The Irrawaddy on Thursday. “The authorities have not done much about the corpses. They volunteered to do the government’s job on their own.”

    Bogalay Township, one of hardest-hit areas, had tens of thousands of corpses littering the rivers, streams and fields, according to the volunteer aid worker.

    “When they returned from Bogalay to Rangoon on June 14 their vehicle was stopped at a checkpoint in Pyapon Township,” he said. “They looked at their identity cards and arrested them.”

    Two of those arrested, Lin Htet Naing and Hnin Pwint Wei, are leading members of the All Burma Federation of Students’ Unions. They went into hiding last year when Burma’s military government started its crackdown on monks and political activists following the civil demonstrations in September.

  4. Status of Zarganar and Zaw Thet Htway unknown

    Jun 24, 2008 (DVB)–The whereabouts of detained prominent comedian and social activist Zarganar and sports writer Zaw Thet Htway are still unknown, according to their relatives.

    Rangoon’s Western District police commissioner and other local officials took Zarganar from his house on 4 June. The police chief said they would hold him for two days to investigate if he had been involved in any political activity but he has not returned home since.

    “It has been over two weeks since my son was arrested but I still don’t know where he is and why he was detained,” said Daw Kyin Oo, the comedian’s mother.

    Zaw Thet Htway was arrested in Minbu on 13 June while visiting his mother who had suffered a stroke. On his arrival into town local authorities told him to leave until he received further notice.

    “My husband was only helping distribute aid to cyclone victims and focusing on his own business,” said the writer’s wife May Zaw.

    “He has never been involved in any political activity so I thought he would be released within days. I am worried about him since I haven’t heard anything from him.”

    Houses belonging to Zarganar and Zaw Thet Htway were thoroughly searched around the time of their arrests and authorities confiscated computers and other documents.

    The comedian and the writer were had been working on relief efforts for cyclone-affected people in Rangoon and Irrawaddy divisions before they were detained.

    Daw Kyi Oo said the arrest of her son and other private donors had disrupted the flow of aid to refugees.

    “There is a shortage of supplies in warehouses and it has become difficult to continue with relief work because of the arrest of Zarganar, Zaw Thet Htway and others who were leading relief operations,” she said.

    Despite assurances of free access by private donors to cyclone-devastated areas of Burma, the military government continues to arrest individuals taking aid to survivors of the May storm.

    According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, ten donors including Zarganar and Zaw Thet Htway have been arrested since the beginning of June.

  5. Families still waiting for news of detained relatives

    Jul 8, 2008 (DVB)–The families of Zarganar, Zaw Thet Htway and others involved in voluntary aid work for cyclone victims who were arrested by Burmese authorities say they are still waiting for information on their relatives.

    Writer Daw Kyi Oo, the mother of comedian and activist Zarganar, said she is worried that her son has not been able to take his medication.

    “He was already on three different medications before he was arrested and now he has been without the medicine for over a month,” Daw Kyi Oo said.

    “We have not been informed about his situation and no one has picked up his medicine either,” she said.

    “His father has been not well either, and he kept asking for his son.”

    Daw Kyi Oo said the family had expected Zarganar to be released soon after his arrest as had happened on previous occasion.

    She said aid work carried out by Zarganar’s group has been on hold for the past two weeks as donations have not been coming in since the comedian’s arrest.

    Zaw Thet Htway’s wife Ma Khin Cho said 25 days have now passed since her husband was arrested.

    Ma Khin Cho said she plans to send an official letter to the authorities asking them to disclose information about his whereabouts if he is not released within 30 days.

    The families of volunteers who were collecting the bodies of cyclone victims the body snatchers said they too, have no idea where their loved ones were.

    Reporting by Naw Say Phaw

  6. The international community can not allow for this kind of action to be taken against people who’s only crimes are trying to help people keep from starving.
    If these activities were to have taken place in the United States the media would have been covering these criminal actions by the government until the innocent people were released, and even long after their release. If you look at actions of the US Government that took place after Hurricane Katrina you will see that the response of the people ,to the good and the bad things the US government did, have had long lasting effects and continuing media coverage. Even just last week the US Government was being critized for taking guns away from people attempting to defend their homes from looters after the Hurricane.
    We must hold the Gemerals of Burma accountable for their inaction in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. Sincerely Jack Slade

  7. The Irrawaddy Delta Redux
    By AUNG THET WINE / LAPUTTA Thursday, July 17, 2008, The Irrawaddy

    I’ve just returned from Laputta in the Irrawaddy delta, where the situation is appalling and vastly different than government accounts.

    I visited Kaing Thaung, Kanyin Kone, Ywe and Pyin Salu villages, where I witnessed a lot of forced labor incidents in the name of “reconstruction.”

    I was told the soldiers said, “We’re here for your village reconstruction. You must cooperate with us.” Some villagers are even beaten during their forced labor conscription.

    There are also numerous cases of refugees who remain at Three-Mile, Five-Mile and Yatana Dipa refugee camps being conscripted for forced labor. The authorities say these remaining camps will be closed on August 5.

    I haven’t been that impressed with what the UN is doing. I think many UN workers are just here for dollars. Perhaps, they don’t release the real news of conditions here because they fear the government’s reaction. They are on the ground, they know the situation, but I think they turn a blind eye because they don’t want their projects stopped.

    The UN workers live in good house, renting for around 1.5 million kyats (US $ 1271) per month. It’s my belief that if they had good hearts, they could reduce these high expenses and give more to the refugees.

    Thanks to regular rain fall, the refugees appear to have enough safe water. If they don’t get rain water, there could be more outbreaks of infectious diseases. In terms of medical care, there are still a lot of villages that need medical services.

    The villagers I talked with complained about the hardships they experience. They hope I can do something for their relief, but I can’t do anything except write a report or a news story. I realize that what I write may get to the international communities, but then what?

    Refugees told me that when they were ordered to leave Pha Yar Gyi and other temporary camps in Laputta, soldiers from Light Infantry Division (LID) 66 entered the camps with batons and guns and forced the refugees into trucks, like driving a herd of cattle.

    The UN staff knows about the forced relocation of the refugees, but they don’t issue any press releases about it.

    Refugees have many stories of abuse by Burmese military and civil officials in charge of the camps. They tell stories of drunken camp officials swearing at refugees: “You are lazy people living on rice donations! You are beggars! Go back home.”

    Some refugee families couldn’t bear it and talked back to the authorities. They would beat and drive them from the camp. It is happening in all three camps. Refugees are also told to inform volunteer donors who come to the camps that they don’t need anything. Some savvy donors wait and talk for several minutes and then they understand the real story.

    From my talks with Laputta residents, I also question the assessment by the Tripartite Core Group (TCG)—a body formed in cooperation with Asean, the UN and the Burmese junta. The teams collected data in the Irrawaddy delta.

    The local authorities I talked with said some young people came around and asked questions about the situation in the surrounding villages. They claimed they were not well informed on the current situation there, but they offered to send them to the villages. The teams, however, seemed to have limited time and left the town with the data they gathered from the administrators in the town.

    I also made inquires about the government providing mechanical tillers and paddy seeds to farmers and boats and fishing nets to villagers. Villagers I spoke with said some villages received the assistance, but the tillers were old and the authorities provided only 2 gallons of diesel for plowing an acre. The old machines break down and consume 4 or 5 gallons to plow one acre of land.

    They said three out of five of the tillers were in workable condition, and if a farmer wanted to use the machine, they had to bribe the village head with 200,000 kyat ($ 169.5)

    The rice seeds the authorities provided are low quality, called Hnan-Kar, also known as Ma-Naw Thu-Kha. Some farmers said they sow them but no sprouts appeared. The farmers feel helpless because they don’t have access to the seeds they used before.

    I saw some paddy fields with green sprouts, but much of the land in the disaster area has not been planted.

    My impression is that the camp administrators, township officials, their relatives and landlords in Laputta are benefiting post-Nargis. The restaurants in town are crowded most of the time.

    I returned from this trip feeling great sympathy and sorrow for the cyclone victims. I wish the relief effort could be more effective. The people are still suffering.

  8. Zarganar and Zaw Thet Htway appear in court

    Jul 31, 2008 (DVB)–Prominent comedian and activist Zarganar and sports writer Zaw Thet Htway have appeared in court for the first time since they were arrested in June.

    The two appeared before Western Rangoon provincial court in Insein prison and were charged with violating section 505(b) of the penal code for inciting offences against the state or causing public alarm.

    The charge carries a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment.

    The next court hearing for the pair will be held on 7 August, according to family members of other political prisoners who were present at the hearing.

    The two men’s families said they had not been informed of any court hearings.

    Both Zarganar and Zaw Thet Htway were enthusiastically working to provide aid to cyclone victims before their arrests on 4 and 13 June respectively.


    Zarganar Appears in Court in Insein Prison
    By SAW YAN NAING Thursday, July 31, 2008, The Irrawaddy

    After nearly two months in detention, Zarganar, Burma’s best-known comedian, and a colleague, appeared in court in Insein Prison in Rangoon on Wednesday, according to a source.

    It was the first time Zarganar (Tweezers), and a colleague, Zaw Thet Htwe, were summoned by authorities following their arrests in June. Two other persons also appeared in court at the same time, but they could not be identified, according to the source.

    The source said Zarganar and Zaw Thet Htwe will probably be tried on August 7.

    Zarganar was one of the leaders of a volunteer cyclone relief group made up of more than 400 people. The group provided food and relief material to 42 villages in the Irrawaddy delta, a number of which had received no help in the cyclone’s aftermath.

    Following Zarganar’s arrest, the group’s relief efforts were halted.

    The Burmese authorities arrested Zarganar on June 4, seizing a computer from his home and about US $1,000 (1,140,000 kyat) in cash, which he had collected in donations for cyclone refugees.

    Authorities also confiscated three CDs, including one which reportedly showed the opulent wedding of Thandar Shwe, the youngest daughter of Snr-Gen Than Shwe, and a “Rambo 4” movie, in which Hollywood star Sylvester Stallone battles Burmese soldiers to rescue kidnapped Westerners.

    Some sources say Zarganar was arrested by authorities because he talked frequently to the foreign press, who saw him as a reliable source of information inside Burma.

    Relatives of Zarganar said they were not informed that he would appear in court.

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