As soon as Zarganar emerged he began publicly calling upon the government to show its good faith by releasing the rest of the political prisoners in its custody. But, much more controversially, he also demanded freedom for Khin Nyunt. On January 13, another batch of prisoners was let out -- and so was the general.
"When he was released the general asked to thank me," Zarganar says. Burmese culture prizes respect for one's elders, so it was the younger Zarganar who was expected to come to the general, his senior by 20 years. "So I visited his house and accepted his thank-you."
The house turned out to be a mansion, lavishly furnished. A wall of the room in which the two men met was occupied by a huge flat-screen TV. Zarganar noticed a late-model iPad lying on a table, and counted the boxes from more than a dozen mobile phones stacked in a corner. These luxuries attested to the wealth that Burma's rulers have accumulated from their years of control over the economy. "Whenever his followers entered the room," Zarganar says, "he gave each of them 10 U.S. dollars" -- a nice gift by the standards of the impoverished Burmese. So much for sanctions.
Even if the government moves ahead with its opening of the political system, the generals are likely to keep their hold over many of the economy's choice assets. When I ask Zarganar if the opposition is willing to accept such trade-offs for progress towards democracy, he smiles ruefully. "This is a very critical time," he says. "We have to move forward with negotiations. We cannot make demands like that. This is the time of trust-building. The government is more powerful than us."
He's right, of course. Even if Aung San Suu Kyi wins her bid for a seat in parliament, she and her fellow NLD members will still be vastly outnumbered by other lawmakers who were elected under rules drawn up by the generals. But at least the opposition will finally have a voice. That counts for something.
The meeting between Zarganar and Khin Nyunt lasted 15 minutes. The general offered no refreshments to his guest. "He didn't offer me coffee, or water, or beer," Zarganar says, laughing. The general did, however, thank the comedian for lobbying on his behalf.
But did Khin Nyunt offer any apologies for putting him in jail all those years ago? Zarganar sidesteps the question. Discussions of that kind should remain private, he says. If the general wants to apologize to the Burmese people, that is something that should be done in public.
So far Khin Nyunt has opted to hold his tongue (perhaps under pressure from his former military colleagues). But it could yet come to that. Zarganar says that there will be no way to avoid some sort of reckoning with the past. Putting officials on trial might not be the right approach, he says. There are better ways: "I like and support truth and reconciliation. The people who did criminal things must admit their misdeeds. They must admit their misdeeds and apologize to the people."
His post-prison travels include a stop in Cambodia to examine how that country has dealt with the traumas of its own recent history. He declares himself particular impressed by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which serves as a national repository for information about the 1970s genocide there.
And on the day we spoke, here in Washington, Zarganar had just visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It's all part of a private quest to understand how to help his own country to cope with the traumas of so many years of authoritarian rule. "We can forgive, but we cannot forget."