BANGKOK, Thailand -- Burma's most famous dissident comedian, who survived "electronic shock" torture during eight years in prison, has been allowed out of his Southeast Asian country for the first time and is traveling to the Clinton Foundation in America while requesting U.S. economic sanctions to be lifted.

The satirical Maung Thura is popularly known by his stage name Zarganar -- "Tweezers" in Burmese -- and met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her Nov. 30-Dec. 2 visit to Burma, also known as Myanmar.

"This is the dawning era of our country, this is the start of change," Zarganar said, describing Burma's new tentative shift from harsh military rule towards some civilian administration and fragile political freedom.

"You should support us. Now improvement starts," the bald Zarganar, 50, said at a Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand news conference on Monday (December 19) shortly after arriving from Burma.

"This afternoon, I already met with the World Bank. They want to give some aid, or some help, some humanitarian aid. So if they lift up the sanctions, we can get many aid for our people, not for our military."

Washington has lead efforts to clamp international sanctions on Burma, insisting that financial hardship will force the impoverished country to embrace democracy.

After decades of dodging the sanctions by establishing economic ties with China, India, Thailand, Singapore and other friendly nations, Burma has started to allow some media freedom and political activity, while asking the U.S. to lift its boycotts.

"Now I can say, 'I am here.' This is improvement. Many times [earlier], I didn't get a passport. I hadn't gone to any country. This is my first trip."

Zarganar said powerful minority ethnic groups, waging insurgencies for independence or autonomy, are Burma's biggest problems.

The regime should arrange peace talks with Shan, Karen, Karenni, Wa and other tribes who have been fighting guerrilla wars, on and off, since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948, he said.

Zarganar expressed positive words for Burma's opposition leader, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, but said her National League for Democracy (NLD) party lacked intellectuals.

"Our country has no intellectual people in the political area. For example, in the NLD. Where are the intellectual people in the NLD?"

Mrs. Suu Kyi's NLD recently re-registered as a political party to run in a promised, but unscheduled, 2012 by-election for Parliament which is dominated by the military and pliant civilian politicians.

The NLD won a nationwide election in 1990 but Mrs. Suu Kyi was not allowed to become Burma's leader because the military, which has ruled since a 1962 coup, ignored the polls.

Zarganar, a dissident poet, performer and filmmaker, was jailed four times, and most recently released on Oct. 12 among a group of prisoner amnesties.

In 1988, during his first six months in jail for participating in a failed 1988 pro-democracy insurrection, an army major "tortured me" in Insein Prison, Zarganar said.

"He beat me. He kicked me many times. He gave electronic shock to me.

"The second time I was arrested, in 1990, that experience was very terrible...I was in solitary confinement for five years. I had no friends. No cell mates. No paper to use as toilet paper. So I used the leaves to clean my feces.

"There was no window in my cell," he said, describing his punishment for voicing satirical political jokes.

After a three-week jail sentence in 2007 for helping Buddhist monks stage anti-government protests, his fourth imprisonment began in 2008 when he was sentenced to 35 years for "public order offences" because he criticized the regime for restricting emergency rescue efforts during Cyclone Nargis in May that year, during which 140,000 people died.

Prison conditions improved slightly during his recent stint.

"I had a chance to read a lot of books. For example, 'On China' by Kissinger," he said, referring to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's insight into China, published in May.

Zarganar plans to visit America starting on Jan. 30 and remain for three months, during which he will "study in the Clinton Foundation."


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of four non-fiction books about Thailand, including Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946; and King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

His website is Asia Correspondent

(Copyright 2011 Richard S Ehrlich)