The Myanmar comedian and political activist Zarganar used his very first passport to visit Cambodia. On Thursday he appeared to a full house at Meta House in Phnom Penh, which hosted a screening of short films from Myanmar.
“Our country is now starting to change,” the former political prisoner Zarganar said. “This is my first time to get a passport and this is my first time to go abroad.”
Produced in the Yangon film school, three of the four short films were documentaries about living and surviving in Myanmar.
Three young Myanmar filmmakers followed the painter Wathone and his family in their everyday life, caught the suspense-packed atmosphere of a colourful weaver competition and accompanied members of a pig breeding project on the countryside, with courageous widows breeding and selling pigs to make their living.
The fourth short film, Reunion, was dedicated do Zarganar and “to other friends that have just been released from prison”, director Maung Maung said.
The filmmaker has known Zarganar since he was little and before he went to prison. He wanted to produce a film that caught the positive recent developments. “There is much optimism. Me personally, I am so encouraged,” he said.
Part of the reason for Zarganar’s trip to Cambodia derives from his interest in documentary filmmaking. Meta House runs a film school and Zarganar hopes to meet local and international filmmakers.
Starting from December 31, he will organise the five-day Freedom Film Festival in Myanmar, screening a selection of 180 films by local talents and more than 60 by foreign filmmakers. The awards ceremony will be held on January 4, the country’s Independence Day.
Zarganar hopes and believes “that all my friends who still remain in the prison, that they’ll all get the chance to attend our award-giving ceremony on the fourth of January”, he said, adding that “within the next months they will surely be released”.
The critic of the Myanmar government, who was arrested four times and spent almost 11 years behind bars, said in 2006 during the making of a documentary, “my enemies will be my friends”.
So now, 5 years later, he says “I have no enemies. I love everybody. So everybody is my friend.”
Among the audience was Rachana from Phnom Penh, who heard about Zarganar for the first time during a documentary screening at Meta House. “The fact that I like about him is that he is very devoted but he doesn’t use big words. He uses very simple language; small words, but very powerful and empowering,” she said.
On his first trip outside of Myanmar the comedian said he sees freedom, security and confidence in the faces of Cambodian youth. But “in our country, our young generation lost their freedom, they lost their security, they lost their confidence. I saw this difference”, Zarganar said.
However, he said he has no intention to run for political office in the next election. Instead, he created the 2020 vision “Road to Naypyidaw,” whose aim is to find talented young people throughout the country, send them to colleges and prepare them to enter politics by 2020.
“This is my next big step for our country,” he said.
Christa Dold from Switzerland said she has heard about Zarganar just two or three days ago in a documentary. “I try to bring together the idea that he’s been a prisoner for 11 years and that he has experienced things that probably go beyond our imagination and that he is here now and talking to us and having ideas how he wants to continue his political struggle and also support others in the same situation.
“It’s very impressive but it’s also beyond my imagination how a person who has endured so much is now here,” she said.
Tina Franke from Germany said: “When the reports on Cyclone Nargis came out I heard about him. I read that he helped and I thought ‘Wow’ and then I read that he got arrested and I thought ‘Oh damn’.
“I never expected to see him back that fast,” she said.
Zarganar, meaning “tweezers” in English, was born as Thura in 1961. He started performing as a comedian during college, where he majored in dentistry. Combining arts and politics, he criticised the Myanmar government through making political jokes and ridiculing it publicly.
After criticizing the government for its mismanagement of the devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008, he was sentenced to 59 years, which was later reduced to 35 years. During a mass release of political prisoners in October 2011, Zarganar was released.
After the Freedom Film Festival he plans to go abroad again to visit the United States at the end of January 2012.