MOUSTACHE BROTHERS AND IMPRISONED COMEDIANS IN MYANMAR

MOUSTACHE BROTHERS

The Mustache Brothers are arguably Myanmar’s most famous practioners of a-nyeint pwe, Myanmar’s traditional vaudeville, featuring puppets, music and slapstick comedy tinged, often colored by direct but dangerous political satire. Par Par Lay is the 60-year-old leader (2007) of the Mustache Brothers. He is a third-generation practitioner of a-nyeint pwe. He learned comedy from his father, who picked it up from his own father. Par Par Lay started out professionally in the mid-1960s and soon headed a traveling road show of three comedians, 10 female dancers, eight musicians and five roadies.

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “The Mustache Brothers are a family troupe of 13 comedians, dancers and musicians. Mr. Par Par Lay and his brother U Lu Maw, 58, favor handlebar mustaches, the source of their group’s name. They used to travel from village to village, performing at weddings, funerals and festivals. In former days, Burmese kings would watch a-nyeint pwe (pronounced ah-NYAY pway) to gauge public sentiment couched in the comedy. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 29, 2007]

Nick Meo wrote in the Times: “Brothers Par Par Lay and Lu Maw and their rubber-faced cousin Lu Zaw are officially banned and blacklisted. They cannot perform at the weddings and village festivals where they once made a living. Two of them have already done nearly five years' hard labour, breaking rocks on the Chinese border. Their crime? Holding the regime up to ridicule at a performance before democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The years of punishment took their toll but failed to silence Burma's only dissident comedians...Their show is a bizarre but entertaining mix of slapstick comedy, graceful dance, and traditional music. The three started off in the tradition of bawdy peasant humour and temple dancing.[Source: Nick Meo, the Times, August 27, 2005]

Felipe Villamor of AFP wrote: “With nothing more than their sharp wit, the sexagenarian members of one of the long-isolated country's most famous comedy troupes are perhaps among the bravest dissidents to have stood up to the generals. Officially banned and blacklisted, the act counts pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi among its fans. The trio used to lead one of Myanmar's most popular traditional comedy acts.[Source: Felipe Villamor, AFP, February 29, 2012]

Moustache Brothers Arrested

In 1990, when the military government rejected the decisive victory of the National League for Democracy in elections and Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for the first time, Par Par Lay was thrown in jail for six months for his political jokes. He was arrested after he performed at Suu Kyi's birthday party. In a comedy bit about farmers' hats, Par Par Lay boasted, "My hat is so large it protects all of Myanmar." Since Suu Kyi's party symbol was a star-topped hat, the crack could be seen as a subtle jab at the junta. [Source: Paul Watson. Los Angeles Times, March 4, 2008]

After that experience The Moustache Brothers gradually began mixing political jokes into their act about terrible roads, hospitals and unemployment, but in 1996 they decided to push their luck at a performance before Aung San Suu Kyi .Beforehand they drew straws. Par Par Lay got the short straw and told this joke: "You used to call a thief a thief; now you call him a government servant." [Source: Nick Meo, the Times, August 27, 2005]

Moustache Brothers Arrested in 1996

In 1996 The Moustache Brothers performed before an audience of 2,000, including Yangon-based foreign ambassadors, at Aung San Suu Kyi’s lakeside compound. According to the New York Times, “A videotape of the event shows Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi laughing, clearly entertained. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 29, 2007]

Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Par Par Lay and his youngest brother, Lu Zaw, 56, went to Suu Kyi's house in Yangon to entertain at an Independence Day party attended by some 2,000 people, including the American and British ambassadors.Lu Maw stayed at home, ready to shoot his mouth off if his brothers landed in the hoosegow. Knowing their script for the two-hour show, that was an easy call.The comedians took aim at the country's corrupt education system, mocking teachers for idly reading magazines, knitting or skipping class altogether in the daytime and then charging their students for night classes at the teachers' homes. As junta spies listened in, Par Par Lay dug a deeper hole with jokes about constant power shortages, money problems and desperate women turning to prostitution, only to spread HIV and AIDS. [Source: Paul Watson. Los Angeles Times, March 4, 2008 **]

“The two brothers and their troupe returned to Mandalay on the next morning's train. That night, around midnight, government agents knocked at the door, rousted Lu Zaw, Par Par Lay and his wife, Win Mar, a dancer in the group, and hauled them off to the city's military intelligence headquarters. There they joined the troupe's other dancers, musicians and roadies. Interrogators ordered them to sit straight in chairs, with their feet off the ground, and then stood behind the prisoners to pepper them with questions. If they weren't satisfied with the answers, the agents beat the entertainers' ears or forced them to do 500 squat-ups at a time, according to Lu Maw. "It was like torture," he said. **

“After two weeks of interrogation, everyone was released except the comedians, who were put on trial under an emergency law the generals had enacted when they seized power in 1962. The two Moustache Brothers were convicted and sentenced to seven years' hard labor, deep in the jungle. Hooded, with their hands cuffed to their seats, they were transported by train, the first political prisoners to be thrown in with hardened criminals such as murderers and drug dealers at the Kyein Kran Ka labor camp, said Lu Maw. The comedians say they spent their days shackled in chain gangs, pounding sledgehammers against huge rocks to make gravel for roads, which are often built by forced labor in Myanmar. Razor-sharp stone chips sliced their skin. “Mr. Lu Maw said that when Mr. Par Par Lay was in prison camp, he used to perform for other inmates before bedtime. **

While behind bars, the brothers kept sharpening their act, performing for their fellow convicts. The generals moved the comedians to separate prisons after two months' hard labor and freed them July 13, 2001. Par Par Lay's wife says she didn't recognize the thin, wasted man that hard time had made of her husband. " 'He had no hair -- and no moustache,' " Lu Maw quoted her as saying, laughing at the thought. "They are very tough, good comedians. They never gave up -- never. "We're still not afraid," he added. "We're comedians. This is our job!" **

After the arrest of The Moustache Brothers in 1996, British and Hollywood comedians and actors wrote to the Myanmar government calling for their release. Hollywood stars including Rob Reiner, Ted Danson and Bill Maher added their signatures to a 1.6-million-name petition, 18 feet long, which demanded the release of Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw.

Moustache Brother Arrested in 2001

As the leader of the troupe, Par Par Lay takes most of the heat for the jokes. He has been arrested three times, most recently in September 2007 during a crackdown on the "Saffron Revolution" pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “About midnight on Sept. 25, his relatives say, the police raided their home-cum-theater here and took him away. On the same day, at least one other popular comedian who had previously been imprisoned for his political jokes, a man named Zargana was arrested. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 29, 2007 ++]

“I tried to find him, but I don’t know where he is,” Par Par Lay’s wife, Ma Win Ma, a dancer, told the New York Times. “If the past is an indication, he must have been beaten a lot. I am worried about whether he is alive or not...If the government comes and takes his clothes and food, then I will know he is alive.” Lu Maw said, “Maybe he is performing in prison somewhere...Yes, we are afraid. But we keep on going. We just joke. This is our job, our family tradition.” Par Par Lay was released this time after five weeks in jail.

Moustache Brothers After Their Arrests and Reforms in Myanmar

In 2007, Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Lu Maw, the only English speaker in the troupe, whose spoofs the government has appeared not to mind too much as long as they are performed only in English, said he learned the language from tourists. “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 can accommodate barely 10 red plastic chairs. Marionettes are hung against a wall. On display was a picture of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi visiting the Mustache Brothers in June 2002. Outside, Mr. Lu Maw’s nephews kept an eye out for the police. Despite Mr. Lu Maw’s tireless optimism, his theater was permeated with sadness. In recent weeks the family has struggled to make ends meet because of the 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.[Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 29, 2007]

In 2012, Felipe Villamor of AFP wrote: “After years of lampooning the junta, Myanmar's Moustache Brothers aren't ready to stop poking fun at the regime yet, despite dramatic changes that mean laughter is no longer such a risky business. And they pull no punches when it comes to the new army-backed government that took power last year after almost half a century of outright military rule ended in the country formerly known as Burma. "It's old wine in a different bottle," said Par Par Lay, 64, also known as "Brother Number One". [Source: Felipe Villamor, AFP, February 29, 2012 ^]

“With the regime embarking on a series of dramatic reforms, the satirists hope one day to be able to take their act on the road, and enlighten the poor about the political situation. For now, however, Par Par Lay, his younger brother Lu Maw and their leathery faced cousin Lu Zaw are contented to be able to tell the world about their country through laughter. The brothers are still officially banned from performing publicly, but they have found a way to continue their act by staging it for tourists in the family's cramped garage on a run-down street in Mandalay. “We are artists: we believe in ordinary people, not in the government,” Mr. Lu Maw told the New York Times 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. People need a good joke. But the government don’t like us because we joke.” ^

Moustache Brothers Opinions of Myanmar’s Military Regime

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Lu Maw said Mr. Par Par Lay had strong opinions about the generals who have mismanaged this resource-rich country into poverty....Mr. Lu Maw said the crackdown on the monks in 2007 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.” “We need their help again,” Mr. Lu Maw said. “Richard Gere’s support is especially important because he is a Buddhist. We need a Rambo.”[Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 29, 2007]

"Joking shares the suffering," Lu Maw told the Los Angeles Times. "That's what the government is afraid of because jokes are like wildfire. They want to hide deep problems under the covers, and jokes spread the word, mouth to mouth, door to door and outside the country. Then they are disgraced. They are ashamed." [Source: Paul Watson. Los Angeles Times, March 4, 2008 **]

Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Myanmar's military holds itself up as the indispensable defender of a great culture, so gagging one of the biggest acts still performing in an ancient art form isn't simple. When the generals were in a slightly better mood in 1996, they decided they could stand a little ribbing from popular comedians. But the junta did a squeeze and release that same year. It barred the Moustache Brothers from taking their show on the road, and refuses to issue permits to anyone who might want to hire them. But the regime tolerates the comedians' home theater, so long as they perform in English, for foreign visitors whose opinions the generals happily ignore. Locals are turned back at the doors, but the doors stay wide open, so they often gather on the street and watch the whole act clearly, along with spies who keep an eye on the Moustache Brothers to see if they're becoming a threat to stability. The generals are easily riled. **

Moustache Brothers Comedy Show

Reporting from Mandalay, Felipe Villamor of AFP wrote: “These days they perform in English to growing numbers of foreign tourists at their nightly show in their home city Mandalay. Lu Maw, a wiry 62-year-old whose broken English is peppered with mismatched idioms, elicited nervous laughter by admonishing the crowd at a recent show to be quiet because government agents were nearby. "We are blacklisted, jail birds, and illegals you know, so you are also here illegally," he told a young American woman in the front row before breaking into a grin. "But don't worry, the government loves tourists because they want your dollars." [Source: Felipe Villamor, AFP, February 29, 2012 ^]

“At another point in the show Par Par Lay asked the crowd if they wanted to see an authentic Burmese act. Within seconds, he was wearing a balaclava helmet over his moustachioed face and sporting a hand gun as he gingerly mimicked a thief breaking into a home. "That's how they are, like Jesse James, Ali Baba, like bandits," Lu Maw said on the microphone, alluding to the military to scattered laughter from the crowd. The regime is not the only butt of their humour -- their jokes also target the West, and in particular the United States. ^

“Feigning seriousness, Lu Maw wondered aloud why US-led coalition forces had not sent unmanned drones to Myanmar, whose military he said had been involved in some of the world's most atrocious rights abuses. "Burma is the same as Libya, Egypt, Somalia or Syria. But they all have oil," Lu Maw said with a naughty wink. "Ah, but they (the West) don't know what we have -- we have opium and heroin too." After the one-hour show, the brothers personally thanked every visitor and sold them souvenirs. They said the money would go to helping those political prisoners still languishing in jail. ^

At another show four years earlier, Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Lu Maw is the middle brother, and since his fractured English is the closest to fluent, he warms up the small groups of tourists who fill the plastic lawn chairs in the brothers' living room each night. He cracks jokes rapid-fire, like a comic machine gun, under the harsh white light of six bare fluorescent tubes. Often he riffs on expressions he's picked up from the folks who buy tickets or while listening to foreign broadcasts on shortwave radio, like "Bite the dust," "New bottle, same wine," and "My brothers and I, we're skating on thin ice!" [Source: Paul Watson. Los Angeles Times, March 4, 2008 **]

“The living room theater is on Mandalay's 39th Street, the Broadway of a-nyient. The stage, covered in red all-weather carpet, is half a step up from a brick floor. The wall behind it is strung with marionettes, and two rattling fans hang from the low ceiling. Audience members come by rickshaw, cab or tour bus, and pay by donation. On a recent night, about a dozen people, mostly young backpackers and a few journalists who had posed as tourists to get into the country, helped out when Lu Maw's English failed him. A few gladly got into the act when the comedians needed more hands to hold up painted wooden signs naming the world's biggest spy agencies, and declaring, "Moustache Brothers are under surveillance." **

“After warming up with safe jokes about wives and backdoor men, Par Par Lay changed out of his fan dance costume, white robe and glittering gold pillbox hat, and leaped on stage in a black robber's mask, wielding a toy pistol, while his brother declared that civil servants behaved like Jesse James. "So much corruption," Lu Maw explained through an old-fashioned microphone to the audience. "That's why this guy has been three times in the clink, up the river -- in the big house!" **

Moustache Brothers Jokes

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: During a-nyeint pwe, one of the Mustache Brothers tells the following joke, according to the New York Times, “U Par Par Lay goes to India to have his toothache treated. The Indian dentist wonders why the Burmese man has come all the way to India. “Don’t you have dentists in Myanmar?” he asks. “Oh, yes, we do, doctor,” Mr. Par Par Lay says. “But in Myanmar, we are not allowed to open our mouths.” In another joke, “a general has died and become a big fish. As the tsunami rolls toward Myanmar, the fish surfaces and admonishes the wave: “Stop! I have already done that here.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 29, 2007]

Nick Meo wrote in the Times: “"We're illicit, blacklisted," Lu Maw screeches manically at the audience of backpackers and package tourists squeezed into his front room. "That means you're illegal, too, and the secret police are coming to arrest you," he howls into an ancient microphone, before reassuring a worried-looking Italian woman. "That was just a joke," he winks. "Men from the Government quite often come and tell us to stop it, but we won't," Lu Maw says after their act. "We don't care, we won't let them stop us. It's the tourists who are keeping us alive; the military only care about dollars and they don't want to upset the foreign visitors by arresting us. You are keeping us safe." [Source: Nick Meo, the Times, August 27, 2005]

Zarganar: the Comic Who Can't Be Cowed

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “ Maung Thura, a comedian known as Zarganar, is a barrel of a man, stocky with a shaved head and a deep, forceful voice. His biting wit and open criticism of repression in recent decades often irked Myanmar's government, which jailed him for 11 years on such charges as "public order offenses," including five spent in solitary confinement. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, November 21, 2012]

Zarganar used to tell that joke about the Burmese man who visited the dentist in India because he couldn’t open his mouth at home. But Jim Pollard wrote in The Nation: It's more than a joke. In a way it sums up his life. The word zarganar means "pliers" or "tweezers", and it's the stage name of U Thura, youngest son of well-known writers Daw Kyi Oo and U Nan Nyunt Swe. He adopted it while pursuing his degree in dental surgery at Rangoon University in the mid-1980s, though he never actually became a dentist. [Source: Jim Pollard, The Nation, February 8, 2011 ::]

“As chronicled in the new documentary "This Prison Where I Live", Zarganar was a comedian, leader of the performing troupe Mya Ponnama Anyeint, which appeared regularly on television and was famous for ridiculing the government of General Ne Win. Then, during the 1988 uprising, he was arrested and tortured and tossed into notorious Insein Prison for months. Two years later he was nabbed again for criticising the regime while helping his mother campaign for office as an independent. He got five years at hard labour. ::

“Released early, in 1993, Zarganar returned to show business and spent the next decade directing and producing movies. That lasted until 2006, when he was interviewed by the BBC and ended up banned from performing. He kept making speeches. Rex Bloomstein, a British filmmaker who featured him in a documentary said, "The very mention of his name was totally forbidden. We secretly filmed this extraordinary man for two days - at great risk to him." Within months Zarganar was arrested yet again, this time for giving food and water to protesting monks during abortive "Saffron Revolution". He'd been urging citizens to support the monks in interviews with radio stations based outside Burma. He spent three weeks in prison - actually a pen for about 30 of the dogs used by the military. He slept on a cement floor that was chilly enough to give him pneumonia. ::

“In May 2008, after Cyclone Nargis raged through the Irrawaddy Delta, killing an estimated 130,000 people, Zarganar was heavily involved in the relief work, organising hundreds of showbiz volunteers to deliver aid to rural areas. In interviews with foreign news media, including the BBC, he expressed his outrage at the junta's indifference to the people's suffering. The Special Branch Police swiftly descended, piling on charges including incitement and breaking media laws, and in November he was jailed for a staggering 59 years. There were two separate rulings, evidently aimed at silencing him forever. At least the first - the 59-year sentence - was so absurd that he was still able to joke about it. The second ruling, however, punished his family by transferring him to Myitkyina Jail in Kachin State, in the far north. Zarganar's term was later reduced to 35 years, but meanwhile there have been serious concerns about his health. ::

Film: The documentary "This Prison Where I Live" by Rex Bloomstein is about Zarganar. Bloomstein said: Zarganar "not only tirelessly exposes the cruelty of the military with his humour and satire, but also inspires the people to speak up for themselves, something they rarely did before".Most importantly, executive producer, German comedian Michael Mittelmeier, adds, Zarganar rails against the authorities "without any hatred". "His credo that 'the enemy must be your friend' shows his true greatness."

Zarganar Joke

1) Rumours have been flying in Rangoon that the famous Burmese comedian Zarganar has been detained for wearing worn-out longyi (sarong) and brand new eingyi (shirt) to a market as a way of showing satirical defiance against the ruling military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (PSDC). But when DVB contacted him, Zarganar said that the rumours are not true as ‘the worn-out sarong and brand new shirt’ joke is an old one, but a new joke has emerged and many people think that it was written by him and the authorities sent him to prison. “That joke is quite good. I like it too,” said Zarganar when asked how the new joke goes. “There are two people (talking to one another): ‘Hey (my friend), do you know U Phyu who lives near our house died yesterday?’ (said the first man). ‘How come he is dead?’ (asked the second). ‘He died from electric shock’. ‘You are pulling my leg! How come he died from electric shock while there has been no electricity supply?’ ‘He got a shock when he touched the (state-run) newspaper.’ ‘How could that be?’ ‘You are all saying there is no electricity etc., but there have been many (reports of) electricity supplies in the newspaper. That’s why he died from electric shock by touching the paper’. Even I didn’t know that one. I felt disappointed that I didn’t crack that joke first.” [Source: http://burmesejokes.blogspot.jp/ , October 24, 2006]

Zarganar After His Release from Jail

In October 2011, Zarganar was one of 300 political prisoners released as part of a general amnesty for 6,359 prisoners. After his release he returned to comedy and public service, with surprisingly little ill will for his former captors. Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Zarganar seems out of place among the fluorescent lights and office furniture of the Home media group he recently helped found. Released in 2011 under a general amnesty, Zarganar expresses little rancor for his former captors, including those in Myanmar's civilian government prominent in the former military leadership. "This is not a time for revenge," he said. "Otherwise, it becomes a circular motion that never ends." .[Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, November 21, 2012]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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