The Irrawaddy

Joking with the Generals

Illustration by K CHUEN, IA from the May 2001 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.

As The Irrawaddy is celebrating its silver jubilee, we revisit some of our magazine stories published over 25 years. Jokes and humorous anecdotes have long served to hold a mirror up to the absurd side of Burma’s stark social and political realities. Here is a cover story on Burmese humor from May 2001. 

Humor is one of the few things that make life in Burma bearable for most people, but even this salve for the soul can rub the ruling generals the wrong way.

When Lt-Gen Tin Oo and several other members of Burma’s ruling junta died in a helicopter crash in southern Burma earlier this year, the state-controlled press attributed the accident to bad weather and poor visibility.

According to Burmese on the street, however, the real reason was something quite different: Shortly after take off, Tin Oo, who was wearing a jacket, complained that he felt cold.

“Why is it so cold?” the junta’s Secretary Two demanded to know. “My dear general, I think it is because of the fan,” answered the pilot facetiously, pointing overhead to the chopper’s spinning propeller.

Tin Oo immediately ordered the pilot to switch off the “fan”, as he could feel a fever coming on. “My dear general, that is impossible,” the pilot protested, horrified that his little joke had backfired. But the general was not accustomed to taking no for an answer.

“That’s an order!” he bellowed.

The pilot, fearing a fate worse than death, followed the general’s order. He turned off the “fan,” otherwise known as rotor blades. And so the general and the other passengers perished—victims of that fatal combination of arrogance and stupidity that has been a mainstay of military rule in Burma over the past four decades.

Welcome to world of Burmese humor. Jokes and humorous anecdotes have long served to hold a mirror up to the absurd side of Burma’s stark social and political realities. They also provide a clue to the indomitable spirit of the Burmese people, so unlike the drab humorlessness of their self-imposed leaders. Without their often dark sense of humor, Burmese would likely never have survived the harsh economic conditions and political repression that have gripped the country for longer than most care to recall.

Opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi made a remark to a foreigner during an interview in 1996 that she didn’t think she and her executive party members had ever had a single meeting where there hadn’t been at least some laughs. “Obviously, its’ not a happy situation we’re in, but the seriousness of the situation is something we can all joke about,” said Suu Kyi.

“In fact, lots of Burmese people joke about it; there are jokes about forced labor, about prison. This is very much part of our Burmese culture.” True. Political prisoners often joke about prison life as they recall their experiences. Humor is applied as painkiller to relieve the tension and stress.

During the Ne Win era from 1962 to 1988, there were many jokes and amusing tales. One popular story went like this: Two former soldiers of Gen Ne Win come to see him to ask for his assistance. The first asks Ne Win for a Mazda automobile, so that he can make a living as a taxi driver. But the second asks only for a statue of Ne Win.

After six months, the first person, who is by now making a decent living as a taxi driver, comes back to see Ne Win to show his gratitude. The second man, however, does not show up. On the next full-moon day, however, Ne Win chanced to meet the man during a visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda, where he noticed that a large crowd had gathered.

The curious dictator went over to investigate the scene, and was surprised to see his life-size likeness and the man who had requested it from him. The man was so busy collecting money from people milling around the statue that he didn’t notice his approaching benefactor. Indeed, he seemed to be making money hand over fist.
At last the old despot discovered the man’s secret. Beside the statue was a sign that read: “Spitting—10 kyat; Kicking—20 kyat; Choking—50 kyat.”

When the country plunged into an economic crisis in the 1980s, a popular joke spread to teashops in Rangoon and elsewhere. The joke went like this: Ne Win and his two top officials, the president and secretary general of his Burmese Socialist Program Party, were in a plane. There they began a conversation. Ne Win’s deputies said the people would be happy if they dropped banknotes from the plane. But then they got into a loud argument about how much money they should spend and what sort of banknotes should be dropped. Upon hearing the heated argument, the annoyed pilot, tired of turning circles in the sky, interrupted the conversation with this suggestion: “Why don’t you three jump out of the plane? Then the whole country will be very happy.”

Under the current military regime, there are many more examples of such black humor in circulation. The generals’ speeches, usually replete with threats against “destructive elements” and “foreign stooges”, invite parody, and Burmese people delight in mocking their leaders’ child-like obsession with political bogeymen.

Indeed, humor seems to be one of the things the regime fears most in the world. Political jokes are banned and comedians who dare to make jokes about the generals are put behind bars.

For the past 13 years, however, the state-run press has been filled with cartoons and commentaries that would seem to suggest that even the country’s illustrious leaders know how to enjoy a good laugh now and then. But since most of the crude witticisms that have made their way into the official media have consisted of attacks on the country’s democratically elected leaders, most citizens decline to share a chuckle with the generals.

Meanwhile, it appears that the generals have caught wind of rumors that a fan had something to do with the death of Tin Oo, and are taking the matter very seriously. It has even been reported that many are at death’s door with pneumonia: It seems that the generals are all unaccountably terrified of turning off their electrical fans, even when they’re feeling quite chilly. Sorry—just kidding.