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Equity celebrates release of Zarganar

12 October 2011

Burmese comedian ZarganarLONDON 11.00am FRIDAY 14 OCTOBER 2011

On hearing that Zarganar (left) was one of the first political prisoners released this morning in Burma, Equity General Secretary Christine Pane commented: "This is a great day. Our members have been fighting for Zarganar's freedom for years, however it is still very early in the broader campaign for artistic freedom in Burma".

Zarganar was awarded honorary life membership of Equity in May 2011 in the latest stage of the International Committee for Artists Freedom (a body within Equity) campaign to highlight his case.

The campaign included a video viral featuring UK comedian Andy Parsons (Answers on a Postcard) and a mass worldwide postcard campaign coordinated from London, following the successful award of the inaugural Freedom to Create Prize to Zarganar. Andy Parsons has welcomed the news of Zarganar's release: "This is great news - although I guess a cautious welcome.  'Conditional release' sounds a bit like you are on parole for life."

General Secretary of Australian Equity Simon Whipp has sent a message to Equity UK welcoming Zaganar's release: "Congratulations on the successful conclusion to Equity's campaign for the release of Zarganar overnight. Equity and its members can be rightly proud of the work you have  done on this campaign and the way in which you garnered international solidarity to assist in achieving  this result. Equity's International Committee on Artist's Freedoms is an important initiative and one which other actors unions could emulate. We should also consider what formal role FIA can play in co-ordinating these important initiative's. Of course there remains much work to do. In Burma alone, as I understand it, many performers still remain behind bars.  This will require continued pressure to resolve."

Twenty-one Westminster MPs have signed an Early Day Motion in the name of Tom Harris: "That this House warmly welcomes the release of political prisoners in Burma, particularly that of Zarganar, the comedian and film maker, who was originally sentenced to 58 years' imprisonment for alleged public order offences; and calls on the Burmese authorities to follow up this gesture with the further release of all prisoners of conscience and the introduction of genuine democratic reforms."

Zarganar has been serving a 35-year prison sentence after criticising the Burmese government’s handling of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. The cyclone devastated the country  - more than 140,000 people died and millions were made homeless. The Burmese government denied the extent of the destruction, and the  military rulers refused offers of foreign aid, further increasing the death toll and suffering of the Burmese people. Zarganar organised relief for many villages which had received no official help. He was convicted of 'public order offences'.

Forty-six Burmese political prisoners were included in a batch of more than 400 prisoners released from Obo Prison in Mandalay today (Wednesday 12 October 2011). Myo Naing, an organiser for the Burmese National League for Democracy, is reported by the Mizzima news web site as saying that nine Buddhist monks, one former military intelligence officer, one former captain, two prisoners convicted of bombings, 13 prisoners convicted of religious riots in Kyaukse and five NLD members are among the freed political prisoners.

Zarganar’s sister-in-law Ma Nyein Zarganar has told journalists that he has now arrived at Rangoon airport. “He is in good health,” Ma Nyein told Mizzima. “He said he could not say anything, and told me to greet everyone on his behalf.”  According to the Associated Press Zarganar said on his release: "I am not happy at all, as none of my 14 so-called political prisoner friends from Myitkyina Prison are among those freed today. I will be happy, and I will thank the government only when all of my friends are freed.”

On Tuesday, Burmese state-run TV announced a presidential amnesty, saying 6,359 prisoners would be released starting on Wednesday under an amnesty granted by President Thein Sein. An earlier amnesty of prisoners was granted in May. Those released include the aged, the sick and the handicapped. It is not known how many political prisoners will be included in the release, but observers say the number could be as high as 300.

Associated Press has reported Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won the 1990 elections by a landslide but was never allowed to take power, as saying she believes that Burmese President  Thein Sein genuinely wants to push through reforms, but she cautioned it was too soon to say whether he would succeed.

Burmese leaders are believed to be taking steps to gain more independence from China and forge improved ties with Western countries, which observers say could help counter popular resentment of its domination of the newly formed Parliament and also increase its chances of taking a more normal role in regional affairs. Observers say other factors play into its desire to open up, including a need for technical assistance from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and other multilateral institutions which cut off ties decades ago in response to human rights abuses. Burma’s economy is in a shambles and the budget gives a miniscule amount to education and public health, in spite of its rich natural resources from gems to timber to oil and natural gas.

Over the past few years Equity and ICAF joined with a number of other organisations to sponsor the Free Zarganar campaign - for more information about the campaign, visit the website www.freezarganar.org.

Further information about the release of political prisoners in Burma can be seen at on the web site of the Democratic Voice of Burma. An interview with Zarganar has been published on YouTube, but without subtitles.

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