A few months ago the Burmese government decided to let a prominent dissident out of jail. One of the first things he did when he got out was to demand freedom for one of his jailers.
I met yesterday with Maung Thura, better known by his pseudonym of "Zarganar." Zarganar is often described as a comedian, but he's much more than that. Over the years his combined role as a satirist, movie star, and social activist has made him the most famous opposition figure in Burma after Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who is now campaigning for a seat in Burma's parliament. (For the record, his business card describes him as an "Art-Flavored Politician." The photo above shows him on October 12, the day of his release.)
Now 50, he has spent 11 of those years in jail (five of them in solitary confinement). He was imprisoned for the first time in 1988, when the ruling military junta shot thousands of people in its effort to disperse pro-democracy demonstrators. One of the people behind the crackdown was General Khin Nyunt, head of the military intelligence agency. Khin Nyunt eventually rose to the position of prime minister, making him the number three figure in the regime.
"When he was a very powerful man, he sent me to jail two times," Zarganar says. He declines to discuss details, but according to some accounts he spent part of his stint in Insein Prison locked up in a dog kennel. Human rights organizations documented countless examples of abuse in Burmese jails during the period. Among the people who gave the torturers their orders was Khin Nyunt.
Like his high-ranking colleagues, Khin Nyunt amassed vast personal wealth through his privileged access to the country's vast natural resources. And, again like his colleagues, he bore direct responsibility for the myriad brutalities perpetrated by the government against its own population.
He was responsible for the conduct of savage wars conducted against ethnic minority groups. He was responsible for the ruinous policies that helped to reduce Burma from one of Asia's richest countries to one of its poorest. And he was responsible for the vicious suppression of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the non-violent opposition movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi, after its overwhelming victory in a 1990 election called by the generals to mollify popular discontent.
In 2004, Khin Nyunt lost an internal power struggle. His rivals in the military leadership threw him into jail, then moved him to the purgatory of house arrest.
In 2010, after an election deemed by most observers to be rigged, one of Khin Nyunt's former comrades, a general by the name of Thein Sein, laid down his uniform, installed himself at the head of a new civilian government, and declared his intention to lead the country toward democracy. Last October, striving to underline its eagerness for reform, the government released hundreds of political prisoners -- including Zarganar, who was serving a 35-year-sentence imposed in 2008 for the heinous crime of organizing private aid to the victims of a cyclone that had taken 140,000 lives.