Skirting Comedy Limits in Myanmar

MANDALAY, Myanmar — Emerging from behind a tawdry blue curtain in the garage of his three-story home here in Myanmar’s second-largest city, U Lu Maw made his way onto a makeshift stage to do what he does best: tell jokes.

“I don’t trust the government,” Mr. Lu Maw, 66, bellowed into the microphone in English one evening in June to an audience of foreigners. “The cronies — they like to take things for free, like Jesse James. It’s the five-finger discount.”

Though his attire is modest — a traditional wraparound skirt, known as a longyi, under a red T-shirt emblazoned with “The Moustache Brothers,” the name of his comedy troupe — Mr. Lu Maw delivers jokes that are a dark and bold reminder of what life was like under decades of oppressive military rule in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

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The group, which has been active for more than three decades, is renowned in the country for political satire, which still risks a prison sentence for its performers if delivered in Burmese in a public site. Since 2001, the troupe’s members have shared their act from this garage seven nights a week for gatherings of as many as 40 foreigners, who pay the equivalent of $10 each.


U Lu Maw and his sister, Daw Ma Taik Kyi, performing at their family home in Mandalay. Credit Mathieu Willcocks for The New York Times
It was jokes like the one about the five-finger discount that landed two of the three founding performers, U Par Par Lay and his cousin U Lu Zaw, in a hard-labor prison camp for five years in the late 1990s. And the performances have continued even after the death of Mr. Par Par Lay, who was Mr. Lu Maw’s brother and the group’s leader, two years ago.

It was not until 2011 that the military regime, which had jailed an estimated 2,000 political prisoners, was succeeded by a quasi-civilian government determined to open the country. Many of those prisoners have since been released, though as of June, 169 of them remained incarcerated, with 446 activists awaiting trial, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human-rights group in Thailand.

Mr. Par Par Lay was a pro-democracy activist and avid supporter of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, now the country’s opposition leader. A participant in the violent nationwide uprising in favor of democracy in 1988, he died in August 2013, at 67. His cause of death was never verified, but Mr. Lu Maw blames a kidney infection caused by years of drinking contaminated water at two prison camps in northern Myanmar.


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“My own brother passed away from a government killing, but not only my brother — over 2,000 people died,” he said, referring to prisoners incarcerated for any crime, whose total population ran into the tens of thousands. According to the Assistance Association, many of them succumbed from prison-related injuries or illnesses. (Myanmar’s poor treatment of its prisoners has for decades drawn sharp criticism from human-rights groups.)

When the comedy troupe’s members began performing, acts like theirs were a fixture at celebrations and public events throughout Myanmar. More than 40 touring troupes from Mandalay each employed a mix of apolitical slapstick comedy and traditional dance, together known as a-nyeint pwe.


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The field of troupes became so saturated, however, that Mr. Par Par Lay and Mr. Lu Maw grew mustaches to differentiate themselves (Mr. Lu Zaw wore a fake one), and then sought to push the boundaries of the form. During an Independence Day event in 1996 at the house of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, Mr. Lu Zaw and Mr. Par Par Lay introduced a far riskier brand of satire to more than a thousand of her supporters, poking fun at the junta.

“They confirmed the disdain of great parts of the population for the generals and their methods of ruling,” said Franz-Xaver Augustin, the director of the Goethe-Institut, the German cultural center, in Yangon, Myanmar.

At the show in June, Mr. Lu Maw repeated the brand of humor used at the 1996 performance. “We don’t have medicine and education here,” he told the crowd. “Everybody starving except for the government. They love to take things. So when you are in Burma, please don’t steal — the government doesn’t like the competition.”

Mr. Lu Zaw, now 64, said that the military police arrested him and Mr. Par Par Lay later in the evening of the 1996 performance. (Mr. Lu Maw, who did not perform that night, was not arrested.)

“I was here in the house when it happened,” he said. “K.G.B. came knocking on the door that night and said, ‘Follow me,’ ” Mr. Lu Zaw said in a jocular tone.

They were sentenced to seven years of hard labor for their act, and the Moustache Brothers were forbidden to perform publicly in Myanmar.

Of his time in the labor camp, Mr. Lu Zaw said, “At nighttime, we were all scabby from working, but every day before bed, the other inmates asked us to perform for them and show them what we told Suu Kyi.”

When Mr. Lu Zaw and Mr. Par Par Lay were arrested, the Moustache Brothers were so well known as advocates of free speech that their detention provoked an international outcry from rights groups and American entertainers like Bill Maher and Rob Reiner, as well as a petition by the cosmetics retailer the Body Shop that produced three million signatures.

Partly as a result of those efforts, the sentence was commuted to five years and seven months, and in July 2001, the two rejoined Mr. Lu Maw and began giving shows every night from their home to skirt the ban on public performances.

Without a change at the helm of government, the risks were high. Still, they refused to back down. Even though police officers were stationed outside the house, “the tourists and journalists continued coming,” Mr. Lu Zaw said, explaining that the presence of a foreign audience probably prevented the authorities from cracking down again. The police are no longer deployed there.

Now, two years after the death of Mr. Par Par Lay, the troupe is made up of the two surviving members, their wives and five other relatives. Their determination to continue defying the government, they said, is partly a tribute to Mr. Par Par Lay, and today they perform an updated version of the very jokes that he created and that still play well in a country where the military remains effectively in control.

“Before shows, I am very sad in my heart,” Mr. Lu Zaw said before the June performance. “When I start to perform, though, I have to change my face. Now, I talk about my brother’s story and I have to put on a smile. I have to be strong.”

Most other comedy troupes in Myanmar have long since disbanded, as performers struggle to make a living. Today, fewer than five remain, Mr. Lu Maw said.

“The tourists demand us, so we cannot stop,” he said. “My life depends on them and that’s why I cannot leave them.”

Mr. Lu Zaw and Mr. Lu Maw consider their work a calling and plan to continue it for the rest of their lives, or at least as long as they can keep performing.

“I think I have 10 or 15 years more in me,” Mr. Lu Maw said, his arm around his cousin. He added, joking, “For him, I don’t know, maybe only five.”

Source: The New York Times

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