Summary and Background
Myanmar’s government released Maung Thura, also known by his stage name Zarganar, from prison on October 12, 2011, along with approximately 200 other political prisoners. One day earlier, following a call by the government-appointed Myanmar National Human Rights Commission for a pardon of “prisoners of conscience,” Myanmarese state television announced that more than 6,000 prisoners would be released on humanitarian grounds. Maung Thura had served three years and four months of his 35-year sentence.
Maung Thura earned a graduate degree in dental surgery at Rangoon University. He subsequently became a stage and television comedian famous for his satirical skits criticizing Myanmar leaders for rampant corruption and repression of the basic freedoms of Myanmarese citizens. He also became one of the highest profile artists in Myanmar to organize social relief programs for the poor. A longtime critic of the government, Maung Thura was arrested three times between 1988 and 2007.
Most recently, following the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis on lower Myanmar in May 2008, Maung Thura was openly critical of the government’s handling of relief efforts, highlighting the still dire humanitarian situation of the cyclone’s victims a month after the disaster. He mobilized support and funds to obtain water, food, and shelter for the cyclone’s victims. In an interview with Irrawaddy Magazine, he stated, “I want to save my own people. That’s why we go with any donations we can get. But the government doesn’t like our work. It is not interested in helping people. It just wants to tell the world and the rest of the country that everything is under control and that it has already saved its people.” In an interview with the BBC, Maung Thura reportedly chronicled the government’s humanitarian response and was deeply critical of what he viewed as its insufficiency. Additionally, he gave uncensored video footage he filmed of the cyclone’s aftermath, its destruction, and the horrible humanitarian conditions left in its wake to the media for use during the interviews.
In June 2008, two days after he spoke with foreign media, Maung Thura was arrested. Nine members of the state’s police forces entered his home, detained him, and searched the premises. In late 2008, he was sentenced to 59 years in prison for violating Myanmar’s Electronic Transactions Law, which bans citizens from using the Internet to send information, photos, or videos critical of the government to foreign audiences, among other charges. Following an appeal in February 2009, his sentence was reduced by 24 years to a 35 year sentence.
The CHR and other member academies of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies undertook private action to help obtain Maung Thura’s release from prison. Both groups are gratified by his pardon and trust that his civil and political rights will be restored.