Burma: vaudeville group can tell a joke in English, but telling one in Burmese can land them in jail

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Oct 29 18:26:17 UTC 2007

October 29, 2007
Mandalay Journal

Myanmar Magic: Tell a Joke, and You Disappear


MANDALAY, Myanmar 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. Dont 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.

Thats a favorite joke by Mr. Par Par Lay, a third-generation practitioner
of a-nyeint pwe, Myanmars traditional vaudeville, featuring puppets, music
and slapstick comedy tinged with in-your-face political satire all in a
country where cracking the wrong joke can land you in jail. Mr. Par Par
Lay, the 60-year-old leader of the Mustache Brothers troupe, is paying
dearly for it. 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 in Yangon, the largest city, was
arrested, according to Amnesty International and local residents.

The tightening of the gag on dissident voices occurred as the ruling junta
conducted a bloody crackdown on the first major pro-democracy uprising in
this country in 19 years, led by Buddhist monks. I tried to find him, but
I dont know where he is, said Mr. Par Par Lays wife, Daw 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 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
groups 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.

But it seems the current junta never developed a taste for it. In 1990,
when the military government rejected the decisive victory of the National
League for Democracy led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the countrys first
election in 30 years and placed her under house arrest, Mr. Par Par Lay
was thrown in jail for six months for his political jokes. In 1996 his
troupe performed before an audience of 2,000, including Yangon-based
foreign ambassadors, at the lakeside compound of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, by
then a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. A videotape of the event shows Mrs.
Aung San Suu Kyi laughing, clearly entertained.

The generals apparently were less amused. Mr. Par Par Lay and his cousin U
Lu Zaw, also a comedian, were sentenced to seven years in a labor camp.
Mr. Par Par Lay was released after five and a half years. Afterward, the
government scratched the Mustache Brothers from the list of state-licensed
artists that residents of Myanmar, the former Burma, were permitted to
hire. Determined to keep their tradition alive and to make a living, they
turned to performing for foreigners.

Even with Mr. Par Par Lay gone, his family has kept the theater on a
run-down street, which Mr. Lu Maw proudly likened to the West End of
London and Broadway. We are artists: we believe in ordinary people, not in
the government, Mr.  Lu Maw said 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 dont like us because we joke.

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 Maws nephews kept an eye out for the police.

Mr. Lu Maw said Mr. Par Par Lay had strong opinions about the generals who
have mismanaged this resource-rich country into poverty. As one story
unfolds, 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. But Mr. Lu Maw said the recent crackdown on the
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. Mr. Lu Maw said
everyone in Myanmar was busy trying to keep up with rising prices, which
is what originally drove people onto the streets to protest in August.
International pressure has helped his family, he said. When Mr.  Par Par
Lay was arrested in 1996, he said, British and Hollywood comedians and
actors wrote to the Myanmar government in protest.

We need their help again, Mr. Lu Maw said. Richard Geres support is
especially important because he is a Buddhist. We need a Rambo. Despite
Mr. Lu Maws 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.

If the government comes and takes his clothes and food, then I will know
he is alive, Ms. Ma Win Ma, Mr. Par Par Lays wife, said. Mr. Lu Maw said
that when Mr. Par Par Lay was in prison camp, he used to perform for other
inmates before bedtime. Maybe he is performing in prison somewhere, Mr. Lu
Maw said. Yes, we are afraid. But we keep on going. We just joke. This is
our job, our family tradition.



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