Features

Poking Fun at the Powerful

By Zarni Mann 12 May 2015

MANDALAY — Just south of the heart of Myanmar’s second-largest city, a small group of foreign tourists huddle together under a dim streetlight. Behind them is a large signboard with “Par Par Lay’s A-Nyeint Troupe” written in big blue Myanmar characters.

Lu Maw, brother of the late comedian Par Par Lay, comes outside to greet the visitors.

“While you are waiting for the show, please enjoy these,” he says, handing out laminated articles in English, French and German about the famous local comedy trio known for poking fun at those in power.

Lu Maw, Lu Zaw and Par Par Lay performed together as The Moustache Brothers for more than 30 years, often attracting the ire of authorities for their satirical performances on everything from government mismanagement to the daily hardships of ordinary citizens.

The eldest of the three, Par Par Lay, passed away in 2013.

At 8:30 pm, Lu Maw invites the tourists inside his home which, by night, transforms into a small makeshift theater. Dozens of photos and posters of the comedy trio, together with bunches of Myanmar marionettes, line the living room walls.

With microphone in hand, Lu Maw introduces himself and his homeland in broken English, gesturing at a map and explaining about the country’s many ethnic groups, his favorite of which are the Karen, he says, before breaking into a Karen-style dance.

Holding a photo of US President Barack Obama embracing opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Lu Maw exclaims that he would like to kiss the US first lady Michelle Obama as a kind of square-up. The audience erupts in laughter.

“But you know, I didn’t get the chance since Mother Suu has already kissed President Obama again when he came here for the second time,” Lu Maw says sadly, producing another photo of the opposition leader with the president to the sound of more laughter.

Lu Zaw performing U Shwe Yoe, a humorous Myanmar dance often performed at donation services and religious events. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)
Lu Zaw performing U Shwe Yoe, a humorous Myanmar dance often performed at donation services and religious events. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)

The hour-long show is lively throughout, with jokes on corruption, the judicial system and the Parliament, and dances featuring Lu Zaw, his wife, sisters, nieces and even his youngest four-year-old granddaughter.

For their topical satire that often criticized the military government, the group faced the wrath of the authorities, with Par Par Lay imprisoned on several occasions. Since 2001, the trio was banned from performing in public.

Unbowed, however, they turned their small home on a nondescript Mandalay street into a tiny theater, attracting a constant trickle of expectant foreign tourists.

While government surveillance of The Moustache Brothers eased following the by-elections in 2012, so too did the interest of local fans.

“We feel we lost some spice in our mood,” Lu Maw tells The Irrawaddy. “Before, we could throw the jokes and criticisms directly to the [local audience] where they could reach directly to the government and have some effect.”

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Performers gesture to the audience from the small makeshift stage. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)
Performers gesture to the audience from the small makeshift stage. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)

But he remains happy entertaining foreign visitors, he says, and having an outlet to show off his talents. As if to show he’s lost none of his political edge, Lu Maw holds up a placard with the words “Amend Constitution.”

“People spoke out with their desire to amend the constitution, but the government turns a deaf ear,” he says.

Since the death of Par Par Lay, the leader of The Moustache Brothers, Lu Maw and Lu Zaw have continued to perform their distinctive a-nyeintpwe—a traditional Myanmar performance combining dance, music, singing and comedy that can last up to seven hours.

Although these days, the shows miss some of Par Par Lay’s charm, they are still crammed with the same fearless and irreverent humor and insight.

“Since Par Par Lay is not here, side by side with me on stage, I always feel like something is missing,” Lu Maw says.

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.

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