Sober times for Myanmar's comics
By Choe Sang-Hun | October 28, 2007
MANDALAY, Myanmar: Par Par Lay goes to India to seek relief for a toothache. The Indian dentist wonders why the Burmese man has come all that way to see him.
"Don't you have dentists in Myanmar?" he asks.
"Oh, yes, we do, doctor," says Par Par Lay. "But in Myanmar, we are not allowed to open our mouths."
That's a favorite joke of Par Par Lay, a third-generation practitioner of a-nyeint pwe, the traditional Burmese vaudeville featuring puppets, music and slapstick comedy tinged with in-your-face political satire - all performed in a country where cracking the wrong joke can land you in jail.
And Par Par Lay, the 60-year-old leader of the Mustache Brothers troupe, appears to be paying dearly for it.
About midnight on Sept. 25, his relatives say, the police raided Par Par Lay's home-cum-theater here and took him away. On the same day, at least one other popular comedian who, like Par Par Lay, had previously been imprisoned for his political jokes, a man named Zargana in Yangon, was arrested, according to Amnesty International and local residents.
The tightening of the ruling junta's gag on dissident voices came as the regime conducted a bloody crackdown on the first major pro-democracy uprising in this country in 19 years.
"I tried to find him, but I don't know where he is," said Par Par Lay's wife, Ma Win Ma, 56, a dancer. "If the past is an indication, he must have been beaten a lot. I am worried about whether he is alive or not."
The Mustache Brothers is a family troupe of 13 comedians, dancers and musicians. Par Par Lay and his brother Lu Maw, 58, wear handlebar mustaches, hence the group's name. They used to travel from village to village, performing at weddings, funerals and festivals.
In times past, Burmese kings would watch a-nyeint pwe to gauge public sentiment. But it seems the current junta never developed a taste for it.
In 1990, when the military government rejected the decisive victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in the country's first election in 30 years and placed the pro-democracy leader under house arrest, Par Par Lay was thrown into jail for six months for his political humor.
In 1996, his troupe performed before an audience of 2,000 people, including foreign ambassadors, at the lakeside compound of Aung San Suu Kyi, by then a Nobel Peace laureate. In one skit, Par Par Lay demonstrated a "government dance," a comic rendition of a wily public servant stealing money from the poor.
A videotape of the event shows Aung San Suu Kyi laughing, clearly entertained. The generals were apparently less amused. Par Par Lay and his cousin Lu Zaw, also a comedian, were sentenced to seven years in a labor camp. He was released after five and a half years.
Afterwards, the government scratched the Mustache Brothers from the list of state-licensed artists Burmese were permitted to hire. Barred from performing for ordinary Burmese but determined to keep their tradition alive, and to make a living, the troupe reinvented itself, performing for foreigners who would come to the home they had turned into a makeshift theater.
Even with Par Par Lay gone, his family has kept the theater going on Mandalay's run-down a-nyeint street, which Lu Maw proudly likened to London's West End and Broadway in New York.
The street looked deserted, with foreign tourism having been sharply curtailed since the crackdown. Creaking taxis and pedicabs maneuvered around potholes and stray dogs on a sun-baked street. Lu Maw's family waited for tourists who never came.
"We are artists: we believe in ordinary people, not in the government," said Lu Maw in English. "We need light, but in Myanmar, light on and off. Not enough electricity. No water supply. School - money, money, money! Ordinary people no money.
"So we joke," he said. "People need a good joke. But the government don't like us because we joke."
The Mustache Brothers are an unlikely tourist attraction in a country where few people dare to criticize the government. But the government appears to tolerate the troupe's spoofs as long as they performed only in English.
Lu Maw, the only English speaker in the troupe, said he learned the language from tourists.
His rapid-fire English words seldom form a complete sentence. In performances, he supplements them with gestures and sign boards. One sign read "KGB," Lu Maw's allusion to the secret police in Myanmar.
"My favorite English is American and English slang," he said. "My brother in the clink, up the river, in big house."
His street-side theater could barely accommodate 10 red plastic chairs. Marionettes hung against a wall. On display was a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi visiting the Mustache Brothers in June 2002. Outside, Lu Maw's nephews kept an eye out for the police.
Lu Maw said he believed that Par Par Lay was arrested because he was a "good organizer" among the many a-nyeint comedians in Mandalay. He had strong opinions about the military generals who have mismanaged this resource-rich country into poverty, and joked about why Myanmar largely escaped the worst of the deadly 2004 tsunami:
A general died and became a big fish, the joke goes. As the tsunami was rolling toward Myanmar, the fish came to the surface and told the wave: "Stop! I have already done that here."
But Lu Maw said the recent killing of monks by soldiers was "no good for jokes."
"People are sad," he said. "Man kill man, you go to hell. This Buddhist belief. Now they are killing monks! They go beyond hell."
Lu Maw said that everyone in Myanmar was busy trying to keep up with rising prices, which is what drove people onto the streets to protest in August. He noted that Par Par Lay was sentenced in 1996 to "seven years for one joke" at Aung San Suu Kyi's place. Now, thanks to inflation, Lu Maw cracked, you make "two jokes and get 100 years in prison."
"We are dead meat already," he said.
International pressure has helped his family in the past, he said. When Par Par Lay was arrested in 1996, he said, British and Hollywood comedians wrote to the Myanmar government in protest.
"We need their help again," Lu Maw said. "Richard Gere's support is especially important because he is a Buddhist. We need a Rambo."
Despite Lu Maw's tireless optimism, his theater was permeated with sadness. In the past month, the family has struggled to make ends meet with a dearth of foreign tourists. Mustache Brothers T-shirts are collecting dust. Older members of the family were lying listlessly on a wooden bed on the mud-brick floor.
"If the government comes and takes his clothes and food, then I will know he is alive," said Ma Win Ma, Par Par Lay's wife. "That is enough. I believe one day he will come back and we can perform together again."
Lu Maw said that when Par Par Lay was in prison camp, he used to perform for other inmates before bed time.
"Maybe he is performing in prison somewhere," Lu Maw said. "Yes, we are afraid. But we keep on going. We just joke. This is our job, our family tradition."