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Risky Jokes about Burma's Dictators

By Don North
October 19, 2007

Editor’s Note: In August, veteran war correspondent Don North was in Burma looking into growing signs of political unrest against the longtime military dictatorship in the country also known as Myanmar. One night, he attended an anti-government comedy routine by three comics known as the Moustache Brothers.

In the weeks that followed, as opposition to the military dictatorship spread, the comedians became targets of the government crackdown. Sources in Mandalay told North this week that one of the comics, Par Par Lay, was arrested Sept. 25 and family members still have no word of his fate.

The following story was written after North’s August trip to Mandalay:

On a makeshift stage in a slum dwelling on 39th Street in Mandalay, it is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit at 8 p.m. The Moustache Brothers, actually two brothers and a cousin, are checking the mikes and plugging in the electric generator.

In this neighborhood of jerry-built houses and open sewers, the electricity is out most of the time. Tonight, as they would do seven nights a week, the three comedians were preparing to regale the audience of a dozen foreign tourists with their “politically incorrect” humor.
“If the secret police come in the front, we will escape out the back,” joked Lu Maw, startling a German tourist in the front row. They hold aloft a sign in English proclaiming, “Moustache Brothers are under Surveillance.”

In Burma, the government may be a joke, but to laugh is to risk prison.

In 1996, two of the group, Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw, performed at the Rangoon home of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. As usual, the government junta of army generals was the butt of their jokes.

Par Par Lay wisecracked, “You used to call a thief a thief; now you call him a government servant.”

The generals were not amused. Charged with “disrupting the stability of the Union,” the two comedians received the maximum sentence of seven years at hard labor in a jungle prison camp.

At the time of their arrest, a government newspaper wrote, “they satirized and mischievously attacked the government, disparaging its dignity and making it a laughingstock.” After serving five years breaking rocks, their feet and hands in shackles, they were suddenly released by the ruling junta.

The Moustache Brothers credit their early release and their subsequent freedom to letters of support from American funnymen Rob Reiner and Bill Maher, as well as Amnesty International.

Unrepentant after years in prison, the brothers returned home emaciated, ragged, but unbowed. In the vaudeville tradition vowed that the show must go on, although they were under orders to cease performing or face prison again.

After getting out of prison, they only played in their own home and in front of foreign tourists. It might have been the only place in Burma where pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi adorned the walls and corny jokes were made about the ruling generals.
In August, the brothers believed the generals tolerated them because the government was reluctant to risk the bad publicity that another arrest would cause and thus curtail the flow of tourists and their dollars.

“Tourists are our Trojan horse, tourism protects us and through them the world can learn of our plight. We are alive and able to speak our mind and let the cat out of the bag, only because of the tourists,” said Lu Maw. “We are skating on thin ice.”

About 250,000 foreign tourists visit Burma each year since visa restrictions were eased a few years ago. The most popular guide book, Lonely Planet, a virtual must for every visitor to Burma, recommends an evening with the Moustache Brothers for all visitors to Mandalay. The tiny living room was crammed with up to 30 customers a night paying the equivalent of five American dollars for a seat.

Lu Maw, the only English speaker, would start the show with a monologue of jokes and hackneyed clichés that would make Jay Leno or David Letterman grimace.

Relying on clichés that were cool 20 years ago, the Moustache Brothers anti-government humor was pretty tame by international standards. It was hardly reminiscent of Lenny Bruce or even Bill Maher today.

The show was a bizarre mix of slapstick, costumed dancers and traditional Burmese music. But the Burmese junta is a government of zero tolerance toward dissent, criticism or unsanctioned entertainment. It was a mystery why this small outpost of “politically incorrect” humor was allowed to exist.
The generals have misruled this ancient Asian nation for most of the last 60 years. Since a pro-democracy uprising in 1988, the Generals have tightened their stranglehold and virtually barred opposition.

The current strong man, Than Shwe, is a sullen, secluded army general who is reputed to have no sense of humor.

In the George Orwell classic “Burmese Days,” written when the author was a British colonial police officer in North West Burma, he describes the “Pwe” or entertainment by a troupe of political satirists, musicians, puppeteers and dancers.

But now Burma is the “1984” totalitarian nightmare that Orwell wrote about later in his life. The only uncensored “Pwe” in today’s Burma was what the Moustache Brothers presented every night from the confines of their home.

 In Burma, or Myanmar as the generals insist it be called, the government has created artist associations for writers, journalists and any form of entertainer, even athletes. In order to create anything new, permission must be obtained from the government. But before getting approval, the artist’s association memberships are reviewed.

If the generals do not approve of an entertainer in the Pwe because they have been blacklisted, the entire troupe is not allowed to perform.

Since 1962, the government’s permission must be obtained to hire a Pwe troupe for holidays, birthdays, weddings and funerals. To gain permission a troupe must pay a fee, and submit a list of all performers.

Permission also must be obtained from the police. Military intelligence must approve the content, too.
With such draconian regulations and a consensus of all parties required, permission is reported to be rarely granted. The art, history and culture of Burma have suffered under the blacklist of the Pwe. The unfettered mind is under siege in what is one of the world’s most oppressed nations.

After the show, the Moustache Brothers encouraged interviews and became even more critical of the government.

“Nobody wants them and everybody hates the government,” said Lu Maw in a raspy voice after three hours of almost non-stop performance. “One day we will see change in our country. I haven’t given up hope.”

On the way back to my hotel after the show a young rickshaw peddler told me the Mustache Brothers are heroes and a true voice of the people in today’s Burma.

In the 100 degree temperature of the Mandalay road, I laughed again at Lu Maw’s joke about skating on thin ice. In August, it appeared that the paranoid and insecure men who rule Burma were fearful that silencing the Moustache Brothers could unleash a local and international storm of controversy that would again fill the steets of Burma with protesters as they saw in 1988.

But as one foreign tourist observed after the show, “it is one thing to arrest Lenny Bruce, but can a government really be brought down by Henny Youngman?”

Don North is a longtime war correspondent who have covered conflicts from Vietnam to Central America, from Yugoslavia to Iraq.

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