Burmese satirists could face death sentence

Oct 30, 2009 (DVB), Comedians and performers who poke fun at Burma's ruling junta could face the death sentence, an article written by Burmese police has warned.

Performances which could sow "public hatred against the government" are prohibited under Burmese law, said the article, published recently in the Crime News Journal. The journal is the mouthpiece of the state's Criminal Investigation Department.

"Equipment used in such an act will be seized while those who violate the law can face arrest and be sentenced from three years to lifetime imprisonment or execution," the article said.

According to Burmese central court lawyer Khin Maung Shein, the threat relates to Act 124(A) of the penal code, which deals with defamation of the government.

"Public performers have made remarks about the rulers since the times of monarchy in Burma, and none of them were punished under the Act," he said. [The government] is changing the law the way they want it."

The renowned Burmese comedian, Zarganar, is currently serving a 35-year sentence after being convicted in 2008 of 'public order offences'. The sentencing came after he had given interviews to foreign media critical of the government's slow reaction to cyclone Nargis last year.

Zarganar was recently awarded the prestigious PEN/Pinter award, which honours international 'imprisoned writers of courage'.

He is currently detained in Myintkyina prison in Burma's eastern Kachin state, and was earlier this year reported to have been denied adequate healthcare despite suffering from hypertension and jaundice.

Political satire is popular in Burma, where outright criticism of the government carries heavy penalties.

"We comedians only make jokes to bring certain issues to the attention of the senior government leaders so they can fix them for the sake of the people," said Lu Maw, from the Mandalay-based comedy group, Moustache Bros.

"That is neither national treason nor an armed-revolution. The only tool we have is our mouths."

The government is expected to crack down on dissent in the run-up to elections next year, with arrests of activists already said to be on the rise.

Reporting by Ahunt Phone Myat

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