The Struggling Comedians

By Hpyo Wai Tha 6 April 2012

MANDALAY—Were it not for international tourists, The Moustache Brothers and their 11 family members would go to bed on empty stomachs. The three renown comedians have relied on foreign visitors for more than a decade.

That’s not to say they have failed to attract the attention of Burmese audiences. In the good old days, the comedy trio were famous enough to perform for dictator Ne Win’s fourth wife Yadana Natmei—also known as June Rose Bellamy, the great-grandchild of Burmese Prince Kanaung Mintha and daughter of an Australian orchid collector long settled in Burma.

For more than 30 years the brothers have charmed their native fans, including Burmese MP-elect Aung San Suu Kyi, with their topical satire which reflects the prolonged suffering of ordinary people in the Southeast Asian country.

For example, act leader Par Par Lay goes to India to get treated for toothache.

“No dentists in Burma?” asked the surprised dentist.

“We have dentists,” replies Par Par Lay. “But we are just not allowed to open our mouths.”

That manner of in-your-face political humor unsurprisingly made the brothers a buzzing mosquito in the ear of the Burmese dictatorship, and they have paid a dear price for their outspoken mockery.

Since 2001, the government has barred them from making a living doing what they love. They have been forbidden from performing in public with their a-nyeint pwe—the Burmese traditional vaudeville performance where a female artist dances and sings to light music while supported by comedians—that plays a popular part in the nation’s cultural life.

“[The government] gave no reason at all for their ban on us,” said Par Par Lay, 64, in the group’s backstreet theater in Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city.

Without government approval, the Moustache Brothers were no longer able to perform at festivals, weddings and funerals as they previously did across the country. To make a living and keep their traditions alive, they opened their performances to foreigners long before the sudden influx of tourists to the country after Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 2010.

Lu Maw, Par Par Lay’s grinning and manic brother of 62, is the only English speaker in the group. “[The government ban] was a big blow to us,” he said. “There were many people who want to hire us, but thanks to the government’s blacklist they dare not to do so. If our troupe was hired these days, we could earn around 700,000 kyat (US $855) a night.”

Every evening foreign tourists—drawn by press reports, guidebooks or word of mouth—venture out into the dimly lit streets of Mandalay to make their way to the makeshift stage of the Moustache Brothers in Maha Aung Myae Township to the south of the city.

Their backstreet theater can only accommodate a dozen plastic chairs, and is partly decorated with pictures of Suu Kyi visiting the act. Another picture hanging on the wall displays the brothers with US Special Envoy Derek Mitchell on his latest trip to Burma last month.

At 8:30 pm, the old amplifier at the corner of their improvised theater comes into life and Lu Maw, with his family on both sides, greets the international audience.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, how are you? We’re the Moustache Brothers!” he bellows through an antique microphone, and a wide range of topical skits begin. They joke about government mismanagement, corruption, blackouts, water shortages, inflation and other things that portray the hardships that Burmese people face every day.

Being the only English speaker of the trio, Lu Maw interprets his brothers’ parts for the audience. Sometimes he also uses gestures and sign boards during the hour-long show.

“We charge 8,000 ($10) kyat per head. Last night we had 25 tourists. Before that we only had two. Sometimes we have five. We divide what we earn among 11 family members,” said Lu Maw.

“We still struggle to make a living. If the government lifts their ban on us, we will be quite alright,” Par Par Lay added.

Even though the family does not perform in public, they are still not free from government interference.

“When the authorities came and told us not to play, we moved to our backstreet theater instead of performing in our living room. I told them ‘don’t tell us not to dance. It’s our profession. If you are not pleased with what we are doing, come and arrest us,’” said Par Par Lay.

In fact, he is no stranger to the Burmese jailhouse.

Par Par Lay was thrown into prison for six months for his political satire in 1990 when then military regime refused to honor the landslide victory of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party in the country’s first election for 30 years.
In 1996, he and Lu Zaw were arrested for their performance at the Nobel Laureate’s lakeside villa in Rangoon. Again during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, Par Par Lay was taken away by security personnel during a night raid at his home for his support of the monk-led pro-democracy demonstration.

“I think [the government] hates us for our belief in democracy and support for the National League for Democracy party. So they tried to ruin our business by imposing a ban on our profession,” said Lu Maw.

“Should the government be sincere in promoting freedom of expression, why don’t they announce ‘no more restrictions on The Moustache Brothers’ in the state media? If they do so, the whole country will know we are free to perform,” said Par Par Lay.

“Mr. President, please relax some restrictions on we artistes like you did on the country’s journalists,” asked Lu Maw. “Give back our freedom to perform and kill the public fear to hire us by announcing that we are permitted to work.”

The brothers also believe this freedom would bring them a chance to realize their dream deferred—to revitalize the traditional a-nyeint. Par Par Lay says this age-old Burmese art form is on the brink of extinction as most of today’s troupes focus on performances of popular music instead.

“I do not blame them for they are just fulfilling the audiences’ demands,” he said. “But we still need to preserve our traditions. If we have the freedom to perform across the country, we will put on traditional theater for anyone who loves to enjoy the a-nyeint.”

On Friday, two days before the by-elections, the brothers’ living room in Mandalay was packed with fellow comedians rehearsing than gyat—an antiphonal chant, usually amusing or satirical, sung on festive occasions—for the NLD campaign.

“To leave an old era for a new one,” the chant leader calls.

“Let’s vote for the fighting peacock with a white star,” the next responds

Although the Moustache Brothers are famous for their long-term support for Suu Kyi and her party, they have never joined the NLD.

“We love Amagyi [big sister] Daw Suu. We support the NLD. But we are not the members,” Lu Maw claims.

“We artistes are for the people. Whoever comes into power, we are supposed to point out their wrong doings and actions that are against the people’s will. So, it’s wise for us not to join any political party to avoid a conflict of interests.”