In a world such as ours, where being relentlessly and gleefully ridiculed on a daily basis is part of a politician’s job description (take a look at Jeremy Hunt receiving his ‘Dick of the Year Award’, for instance; or this video made after the David Cameron pig fiasco; or this clever person who replaced Donald Trump’s eyes with mouths – I could go on like this forever), it’s hard to imagine what it must be like to live in a country where even the slightest criticism of the government could land you in jail. How can we, who consider it our human right to angry-type righteously indignant emails, start petitions, publish damning articles and air our opinions (however misinformed or offensive) with impunity, possibly grasp the sense of powerlessness that is the daily lot of people in countries whose politicians aren’t quite such good sports?
Though the situation is changing apace, Burma hasn’t exactly been a paragon of free speech in the past few… well, ever. And we’re not talking about getting a slap on the wrist or even losing your job – we’re talking about a country where the standard response to dissent of any form is to throw them in jail. Aung San Suu Kyi beat us in the election? Throw her in jail. Someone made a joke about the government? Throw them in jail. Someone printed a picture of the Buddha wearing headphones? Throw him in jail. Etc. You get the picture. This makes any attempt to speak out against the status quo in Burma all the more courageous.
The Moustache Brothers
The Moustache Brothers were a Burmese comedy trio: Par Par Lay, Lu Zaw, and Lu Maw. Par Par Lay and Lu Maw were actual brothers – Lu Zaw is their cousin. The trio came from a family of traditional entertainers skilled in the performance style called ah nyeint (or anyeint) – a kind of Burmese-style variety show involving music, dance, singing and comedy. Their performances followed – and in fact still do follow – the same traditional format, but it was the satirical element of their routine that really propelled them to fame.
The Moustache Brothers were one of the few performers in Burma to use their platform to openly criticise the Burmese government, and it quickly earned them a cult following. One of their more famous jokes is about a Burmese man who goes to Thailand to visit a dentist. The dentist asks, “don’t you have dentists in Burma?” – to which the man replies “yes, but in Burma we cannot open our mouths”.
Unsurprisingly, this didn’t sit well with the Burmese junta, and as though to prove the Brothers’ point – they threw them in jail. In 1990, Par Par Lay was imprisoned for six months for campaigning in favour of Aung San Suu Kyi before the general election (she won; they threw her in jail). Then, in 1996, the Brothers were invited to perform at an Independence Day celebration at Suu Kyi’s home during a brief period when she was not under house arrest. As a result of this performance the government threw Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw in prison for five years, where they were forced to break rocks with the other inmates. Finally, in 2007, Par Par Lay was jailed for a third time when he openly supported the Saffron Revolution, the pro-democracy uprising of Buddhist monks in Burma.
Despite this harsh treatment the Moustache Brothers never changed their jokes, so the government had to find another way of silencing them. In 2001, they introduced new rules that banned them from performing in public without special permission – but all this achieved was to encourage the Brothers to set up a ‘private’ theatre in their Mandalay home, where they continued to entertain guests and tourists. Indeed, the Moustache Brothers can still be found performing in this makeshift venue today – even though Par Par Lay died in 2013. The remaining duo allege that their late comrade’s death from kidney disease was caused by drinking water from a lead-lined tank during his imprisonment.
Dissent in Burma today
Things in Burma today are much better than they were in the 1990s. The National League for Democracy has won the general election, scores of political prisoners have been released from prison, and in 2012 Par Par Lay toured the country campaigning for Aung San Suu Kyi without repercussions from the military. Nonetheless, the surviving Moustache Brothers insist that their criticisms of the government are still relevant. “Education is not free. Lights go off and on. In hospitals there is no medicine. Many die of HIV, the government says nothing. Everyone is corrupt – on the take!” Explained Lu Maw in 2013. In the three years since his statement, things have come a long way – but the military still holds 25% of government seats, Aung San Suu Kyi is still barred from the presidency, and the Moustache Brothers are still restricted to performing in a ramshackle garage in Mandalay. Until these injustices are addressed and free speech is embraced in Burma, the Brothers will still have something to joke about.
Visiting the Moustache Brothers
If you’re travelling to Mandalay, you can visit the Moustache Brothers’ home and watch a performance for the equivalent of about £6. The shows are given in English – albeit rather difficult to understand – with sign boards to aid comprehension, and involve various members of the Brothers’ family as dancers and performers. This certainly isn’t a show to delight all comers: not all of the jokes hit their mark, and some don’t translate particularly well to English. The setting is tawdry, the music scratchy, and the quality of the material decidedly patchy, but you’ll have the opportunity to meet two performers who had the courage to speak out against injustice even when it meant imprisonment – and for this the Moustache Brothers deserve their fame.
Inside Burma Tours can help you organise a visit to the Moustache Brothers on your visit to Mandalay. Just get in touch to find out more!