Letter from Myanmar: A Burmese comedy troupe tries to share their political satire with tourists, but is it worth it?
After a day’s worth of biking and post-meal paralysis, we walked our bikes through the wide, dark streets of Mandalay to 39th Street between 80th and 81st. A biker pointed us over to an apartment complex that doubles as a performance venue for the Moustache Brothers, an “a-nyeint,” or “vaudeville,” troupe we were hoping to see during our final night in the former royal capital of Burma, a country officially known as Myanmar. For a modest $10, foreigners can witness a night of jokes and dance inside a garage full of old newspapers, traditional puppets, and colorful signs. As we waited in beach chairs for the show to start, the television in the background played news segments about the recent escalations of the Kachin State ethnic conflict on the troubled border with China. Their handmade signs spoke of the watchful eye and political corruption of a totalitarian regime.
“…Toothache. I need a doctor. I want to see the doctor. That’s why I travel outside in Thailand across the border… the doctor think it’s amazing. ‘So inside Burma, do you have a doctor?’” U Lu Maw, known as “Moustache Brother Number Two,” took a pause to prime us for the punch line. “Ah, yes, we have, but we are not allowed to open our mouth.”
The pitiful laughter from the near dozen foreigners made the air thick with melancholy.
“Hey, hey, that’s illegal! 10,000 kyats. You must pay the money.” Lu Maw, role-playing as a traffic officer, did a double take and leaned in toward the crowd with a smirk on his face and his military helmet held out like a donation box. “But dealing with me, 1,000 kyats enough.”
I tried my best to muster up a smile for his attempt but felt more laughter would just breed more discomfort. Granted, Lu Maw was the only performer on stage who could crack jokes in English—he just could not deliver them well. Until the Burmese government banned the Moustache Brothers from performing in public without permission in 2001, they shared their struggle with their countrymen in the open air of revolution, moving from one pro-democracy rally to the next. Now their struggle plays out before passing travelers in a box that smells like house arrest. The troupe hoped that foreigners could catalyze their comedy into a call for action, but with the absence of their heart and a gap in communication, those hopes look dim.
The everyday struggles of finding an audience and navigating government restrictions pale in comparison to what the Moustache Brothers have overcome during their lives, ordeals well pronounced in their deep-set eyes. The troupe, formed by whiskered brothers U Par Par Lay and U Lu Maw with their clean-shaven cousin U Lu Zaw, came from a family of comedians. But in what was, until recently, the world’s longest-running military regime, pursuing comedy was a surefire path to imprisonment. (Note that while the military junta was officially dissolved in 2011, many of Burma’s current political leaders are former military officials.)
The late Par Par Lay, Moustache Brother Number One, was born in 1947—the year General Aung San secured Burma’s independence from the British following indispensable support during World War II. It was also the year the Burmese saw their hopes for democracy perish with Aung San’s assassination. Burma later devolved into a military state in 1962, as the turmoil that arose over the course of numerous inter-ethnic civil wars reached a tipping point. That era also bred an army of comedians, like the Moustache Brothers, equipped with satire to fight against the iron fist of military rule.
Lu Maw was known to use his wit to make Par Par Lay the butt of his jokes, but Par Par Lay risked his butt far more often to protest. After the country’s multi-party general elections in 1990—the first of their kind in thirty years—the military junta refused to recognize the overwhelming National League for Democracy (NLD) victory, despite the party’s winning 392 of the 492 seats contested. The regime imprisoned Par Par Lay, along with thousands of other protestors and NLD members who had turned out to vote. The six months Moustache Brother Number One spent in prison with scholars, students, and protestors gave him new strength to voice his dissent.
“Look, look, there is Daw Suu Kyi,” Lu Maw voiced to the crowd as he pointed out the 50-year-old daughter of the martyred General Aung San on the home video playing on his television.
Aung San Suu Kyi, slightly aged by her six years under house arrest, sat in the midst of the crowd giggling away at Par Par Lay’s quips about the regime. Her bright face seemed absent of dark memories. Memories where she had witnessed the murders of thousands by the military junta during the 8888 Uprising, the student demonstrations for greater democracy that led to an infamous massacre on August 8th, 1988. Suu Kyi established the NLD to amplify the students’ cause in the aftermath of their protests, an act that resulted in her house arrest when she refused to leave the country in 1989. Her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize solidified her as the Burmese symbol for democracy in the eyes of many, garnering newfound legitimacy for her NLD, augmenting global attention on repressive Myanmar, and generating external pressure for her release. The military junta lifted her sentence in 1995, albeit with strict travel restrictions and endless media vilification by the state. A year later, the Moustache Brothers performed a show for the NLD to celebrate Independence Day at Suu Kyi’s house in Rangoon, the country’s former capital and largest city, officially known as Yangon. Her laughter did not go unnoticed.
“When they came for the arrest,” Lu remembered with an overdone face of shock, “I said, ‘You want the other moustache!’”
A few days after Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw returned home to Mandalay, the authorities seized them from their own beds in the middle of the night on trumped up charges of “criticizing the government.” They were sentenced to break rocks for roads in a labor camp for seven years. External pressure from Amnesty International, and reputedly Suu Kyi, led to their release five and a half years into their sentence. But fans eagerly awaiting the return of the Moustache Brothers were heartbroken to learn that their public performances had been banned.
Even hard labor, however, could not deter the “blacklisted” Par Par Lay from continuing his resistance efforts. At the age of 60, he joined the peaceful protests of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, which were ignited by monks after the military junta decided to remove fuel subsidies (one of the few remaining civilian benefits under their rule), leading to a steep rise in inflation. The country ran on petrol and diesel. Numerous monks and civilians faced a firestorm of bullets and tear gas. Par Par Lay went to prison for a third time—just shy of two months—simply for wanting cheaper gas.
Despite all the violence and upheaval he had lived through, kidney disease forced Par Par Lay to “kick the bucket”, as Lu Maw put it, on August 2nd, 2013. Even while suffering from back pains from the yet-to-be-diagnosed disease, he assisted the NLD by touring the country with a 12-month campaign, urging people to have “no fear” and vote in the 2012 by-elections. With attending crowds that far surpassed the size of that of the 1996 Independence Day celebration, The Myanmar Times reported that Par Par Lay’s presence gave the NLD “a significant boost,” according to fellow party member U Ko Ko Aung.
Comedy meant everything to Par Par Lay. In a conversation with Burmese activist Khet Mar of Sampsonia Way, Par Par Lay reportedly said, “If I return as a human in the next life, I just want to be a comedian again. A comedian’s job is to make people happy. If he sees that people are happy, he is happy as well.” But comedians, Par Par Lay believed, could also educate the people and “serve as a representative for their suffering.” Several months after the article was published, Par Par Lay’s conditions permanently deteriorated after a kidney operation.
Watching Moustache Brother Number Two perform, I wondered if the heart of the Brothers’ cause had died with Number One.
“Oh yeah!” Lu Maw shouted as his family and friends performed traditional dances of the Karen (Kayin) people, a tribe native to the Burmese-Thai border. Led by his wife, Ni Ni Lin, the group transitioned through various ethnic styles throughout the show. Through dance and attire, we witnessed the art of merely four of the estimated 135 ethnic groups. A number like that sounds astonishing, even with the context that Burma’s population of more than 50 million makes it one of the 25 most populated nations in the world. The fact can escape you—until you see one of the public buses going through Rangoon.
The dance translated better than Lu Maw. He might be able to jest at the former military junta with his jokes, but the dancers gave a face to the people suffering perhaps the most under military rule. Their movements evoked an unwritten poetry, composed by authors who had abandoned their art to secure the liberty of their people.
After the show, Lu Maw began to talk politics with me, explaining Burma’s dire need to expand representation for all ethnicities. “That’s the Kachin State,” Lu Maw pointed to the tip of the arrowhead Burma resembles, “there is fighting there.” Lu Maw continued to single out conflicts—from the Shan State to the Arakan State—but then realized that he had begun sweeping the entire map by trying to point out all of the clashes.
For once, Lu Maw seemed human. On stage, with his overused signs and his pseudo-narrative, he was a caricature of political criticism. Despite his best efforts, so much of the humor was lost in translation. In comedy, timing is everything, and Lu Maw sailed through major issues from government nepotism to Burma’s opium trade to lead poisoning in prisons. He failed to let topics sit, deflating his punch lines and wasting their purpose. To the government, his words might have appeared dangerous. To foreigners, the show seemed like a pit stop before another cheap pint at the bar.
But perhaps I am being overly critical. After all, the Moustache Brothers’ past shows on VHS tapes prove that Burmese audiences used to roar with laughter at their jokes. But, following the 2001 ban on public performances and the death of Par Par Lay, it seems that the Moustache Brothers have remained confined to their garage, their fans stuck on rewind.
“Oh please, take a photo. I love paparazzi!” Lu Maw and Lu Zaw posed unabashedly for the cameras, which they had requested throughout the evening.
Lu Maw believes foreign photographers and journalists create a domino effect that leads to international aid. And Burma—barely staying afloat in the face of economic sanctions, human rights violations, and crippling natural disasters—sorely needs it.
The show may not be creating a revolution, but if you listen closely, you will hear why Burma needs help.
“Ok, tourist come, I can tell everything,” Lu Maw beckoned that I draw closer. “I want to speak my gut.”
Mahir Rahman ’17* is a Psychology-Neuroscience major in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Originally a member of the Class of 2016, Mahir is currently taking a gap year in Seoul, Republic of Korea.