Comedians back new Amnesty Edinburgh festival campaign for jailed Burmese comic

Amnesty International today asked comedians and audiences at the Edinburgh Festival to get behind a new campaign for a comedian jailed for 35 years for criticising the government.

Zarganar, aged 49, is one of Burma’s biggest comedians. He has been held in Myitkyina Prison, in Burma’s northern Kachin State, since November 2008, after he criticised the Burmese government’s response to the 2008 natural disaster of Cyclone Nargis and started his own relief efforts. He is in poor health, suffering from heart problems and high blood pressure, but has been denied adequate medical treatment.

Amnesty is asking people to go to www.amnesty.org.uk/zarganar to download a letter to send to the Burmese authorities demanding Zarganar’s immediate and unconditional release. The organisation is also insisting that he is not to be tortured or otherwise ill-treated, and is given all necessary medical treatment and access to lawyers of his own choosing and access to his family.

Comedian Mark Watson said:

'You can’t do comedy with someone looking over your shoulder telling you what you can and can’t say. And you can’t do it if you’re under constant threat of being sent to prison. Freedom of expression is the most important thing in the world to comedians.

'I’m supporting Amnesty’s campaign to free Zarganar – he shouldn’t be in prison, he should be onstage telling jokes. I hope everyone at the festival gets behind the campaign.'

Comedian Josie Long said:

'What’s really staggering about Zarganar’s story is that the government ultimately locked him up for doing charity work. To get 35 years for trying to help the survivors of a natural disaster, and criticising the authorities for not doing more, is just ridiculous.

'Zarganar had already been banned from the stage for doing jokes that criticised Burma’s authorities, but it’s this act of kindness that pushed them over the edge. It’s unbelievable.

'We need to make as much noise about Zarganar as possible to pressure the Burmese government to release him. No-one should be in prison just for peacefully expressing their views.'

Amnesty campaigners will be out on the streets generating more public support for the campaign. They will be taking photos of festival-goers holding up their hand, with the name of Zarganar or one of many other Burmese prisoners written on their palm. All the photos will be taken to Brussels for October's Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) of leaders from Asia and Europe. We'll use this opportunity to ask these leaders to demand both freedom for Burma's political prisoners, and real human rights improvements across the country.

Amnesty International Scotland Director John Watson said:

'Comedians and other artists are at the front line in the fight for free speech, pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable and holding up a mirror to governments and societies all over the world.

'The right to freedom of expression is essential to all performers, and it’s a right that Amnesty works hard to protect – that’s why we’re here at the Edinburgh festival. We really hope that comedians and audiences will get right behind this campaign and help free Zarganar.'

Michael Mittermeier, one of Germany's biggest names in stand-up comedy, is coming especially to Edinburgh for one night to raise awareness of the Zarganar campaign at Amnesty’s Stand Up For Freedom show on 19 August at Venue 150, the EICC. Michael recently returned from Burma where he was making a new film about Zarganar's imprisonment, "This prison where I live", which has just premiered at the Munich Film Festival.

Michael Mittermeier said:

'I’m here in Edinburgh to make people laugh, but also to talk about another comedian who’s been stopped from telling jokes by his government. Zarganar’s story really got to me and I hope other comedians at the festival will get behind the campaign for him too.

'No-one should be in jail just for peacefully speaking their mind. As a comedian the right to freedom of expression is precious to me, I simply couldn’t exist without it.'

Zarganar - whose name means ‘tweezers’ in Burmese - founded his own comedy troupe which performed satirical plays and sketches poking fun at the government. He has made numerous films, some of which have been banned in Burma, and he is also a writer, musician, poet and film-director. In 2006, he was excluded from the entertainment world by the authorities for an indefinite period, following an interview he gave to the BBC, criticising the regulations imposed by the junta on performances during a festival in Burma.

Zarganar, a keen football fan, will also get special billing at the "Comics vs. Critics" football match hosted by Amnesty International and Fest magazine on Sunday 15 August at Meadowbank stadium. All the players' shirts will have Zarganar's name on the back and a life-size cut-out of Zarganar will feature in the team photos.

Rob Rouse, who captains the comedians team this year, said:

'It’s sickening that this man who just wanted to help people and make them laugh, could spend the next 35 years in jail. Zarganar shouldn’t be in prison.

'Of all the people who value free speech it’s us comedians who cherish it more than most, so we’ve got to stand up when one of our own gets silenced.'

Pictures of Zarganar, further information and interviews – including with his friend and fellow Burmese performer Htein Lin - are available from the Amnesty International UK press office.

  • Buy tickets for Stand up for Freedom 2010 /li>
  • Take action for Zarganar /li>

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