03/13/2012 12:58 EDT | Updated 05/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Toppling a Regime One Joke at a Time

Joerg Daiber

A villager approaches the guard in front of Burma's presidential palace and asks to speak with General Than Shwe (the former Burmese military dictator). The guard replies that the general is retired and no longer lives there.

An hour later, the villager returns and asks again to speak with Than Shwe. The guard again says the general is retired and no longer lives there.

The villager comes back a third time and asks the same question. The guard becomes angry. Pointing his gun, he shouts, "Why do you keep coming back? I told you the general is retired. He is not here!"

The villager replies, "I understand. I just want to hear you say that."

Zarganar finished his joke and smiled as his small audience erupted in laughter. He is Burma's answer to Rick Mercer -- a comedian whose wit is the bane of Burma's oppressive military regime.

With his bald head, black cardigan, and checked shirt, Zarganar looked like a cross between a Buddhist monk and an accountant as he regaled the listeners in the meeting room of Amnesty International's Ottawa office. But his deep, growly voice and gentle humour were a pleasure to hear. It's easy to understand why the people of Burma love him while the regime fears him.

This is Zarganar's first time abroad, and one of our team was lucky enough to spend time with the heroic humourist. He has spent 11 of the past 24 years in prison, put there by a government that doesn't appreciate his jokes.

Born Maung Thura, "Zarganar" is a stage name. In Burmese, it means "tweezers." He explained that a traditional allegory in Burma says that fear is like a hair growing on the body. Zarganar sees himself as the tweezers, using laughter to pluck the hair of fear from his people.

Zarganar started his life as a satirist while at university in the 1980s. He was actually studying to be a dentist. He formed a drama troupe to perform for fellow students, eventually appearing on Burmese TV where he earned a reputation for wickedly funny puns and double-entendres. Zarganar said he saw jokes as a way to be the voice for Burmese who were too afraid to speak up.

"I wanted to be the loudspeaker for my people."

His jokes drew attention -- and consequences.

In 1983, Zarganar was suspended from school for three months. This was followed by a one-year suspension. When he passed his final exams in 1985, the government refused to give him his dentistry degree for two more years.

Banning has become a familiar theme for Zarganar. He's been banned from more careers than most people will have in their lifetime. He said he's been a stage performer, film actor, film director, screenplay writer, advertising director, radio announcer, and TV editor. With each job he has managed to prick authorities who have responded by banning him from doing the job any more.

In 1988, while participating in widespread pro-democracy protests, Zarganar was arrested for the first time and sentenced to a year in prison. He was arrested again for making speeches during the 1990 Burmese election, and sentenced to another four years.

In 2008, Zarganar was sentenced to 59 years for speaking to foreign reporters about the suffering of Burmese affected by Cyclone Nargis.

We understand the smile left Zarganar's face as he described the conditions in prison. For five years he lived in solitary confinement in a six-by-eight foot cell with no window or ventilation.

Zarganar suffers from severe hypertension and high blood pressure. One hot summer, the condition caused him to pass out in his cell where he lay for three hours before guards carried him into the prison courtyard and left him on the ground. It was another 10 hours before any doctor was brought.

There is nothing funny about this. However, through all his hardships, the comedian in Zarganar has never given up.

"I have always passed through my difficulties with humour."

Even his arrests provide Zarganar with comedic material. He described one court appearance:

"I was brought before the judge, and he asked me if I had email. I said yes. He asked me for my email address, so I gave him my gmail address. The judge became very angry and said, 'I asked for your email, not your gmail!'" Zarganar puffs up in mock outrage and waves an angry finger, imitating the ignorant judge and prompting further waves of laughter.

Last October, Zarganar was released from prison along with more than 120 other political prisoners. Approximately 650 more were released in January. In a rare move, Zarganar was permitted to leave Burma. Since then he has been touring the U.S. and Canada, meeting both supporters and government officials.

Zarganar called the moves "political show business," an attempt by the Burmese government to improve its international image.

He pointed out his prison sentence has not been commuted, only suspended. If he is arrested again, he'll have to serve out the other 31 years in prison. With Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird visiting Burma this past week, Zarganar begged the activists gathered in Ottawa not to forget the 324 political prisoners still incarcerated in Burma.

Nevertheless, Zarganar's visit here suggests there is hope for democratic freedom in Burma. "The word 'cautious optimism' is a very good word," Zarganar himself said.

For now, Zarganar is enjoying the travel, although he laments the busy schedule has not allowed him time to play tourist in any of the cities he's visited, seeing sights like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, or Canada's Parliament buildings.

Asked why he chose to become a comedian rather than a dentist, Zarganar replies, "One dentist can open one mouth. One comedian can open 11,000 mouths."