Burmese jokers still pillory military junta through their slapstick comedy act

November 14th, 2007 - 1:52 am ICT by admin  
Like her, two of the three “Moustache Brothers”, as the comedians are called, have served long prison sentences.

A fortnight ago, five members of the Burmese special branch knocked at the door of Par Par Lay, the star of the group. He was given no time to pack spare clothes. Since then, his family, whose cramped front room serves as the troupe’s miniature theatre, have heard nothing about his health or whereabouts.

According to The Times, this setback has not stopped the two remaining “Moustache Brothers”, assisted by their wives, from performing the show that has got them into such hot waters.

It begins with an announcement by Lu Maw, the troupe’s spokesman, in his characteristically exuberant English: “No 1 Moustache, Par Par Lay, is taken away. He in the slammer, up the river, in the clink - he jail bird!” Later he says: “He’ll be OK. He knows how to live in prison - he just makes a joke about everything. But his wife is worried because he has no clothes, and we don’t know where he is. And the police will tell us nothing.”

It is a sign of the brittleness of the Burmese regime that, as well as the democracy activists and Buddhist monks who organised and led last month’s demonstrations, it has suppressed artists and entertainers who have spoken out in support of them.

In Rangoon, a comic actor known as Zargana was arrested after organising a contingent of performers and writers to take part in the marches. ar Par Lay’s most recent crime was to do the same thing in his home city of Mandalay, the old royal capital, where most of the 400,000 monks in Burma live.

The “Moustache Brothers” comedy is in the tradition known as a-nyeint pwe, a combination of dance, folk plays, sketches and slapstick performed by troupes of travelling players.

“My grandfather was comedian, my father was comedian and I chip off the old block,” said Lu Maw, a grinning, manic man of 58. Par Par Lay first served time in prison in 1990, but the pivotal moment for the Moustache Brothers came in 1996 at a performance in Rangoon for Ms Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy. The show, recorded on video and circulated underground ever since, was a tour de force of subversive wit puncturing the bombast of General Than Shwe’s regime.

Within days, the Brothers had been hauled in. Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw (actually a moustacheless cousin) were given seven years’ hard labour. After a letter-writing campaign by British and American comedians, the two were released after five years and seven months, much of it spent in leg shackles breaking stones. To make matters worse, they were denied the licence required to perform their art at weddings and parties. With little alternative, they reinvented themselves as international comedians performing to foreign tourists, in English.

Deprived of Moustache No 1, Lu Maw, Lu Zaw and the wives none the less romped through their hour-long routine yesterday, a bizarre stream of Burmese classical dance, jokes about randy henpecked husbands and Lu Maw’s personal thesaurus of colloquial English phrases, all recounted through an antique microphone.

Like everyone else in Burma, though, the Brothers are utterly vulnerable to a government that recognises no constraints on its power. (ANI)

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