The Irrawaddy

‘A Man Without a Head Can Run Burma’

This article from February 2008 delves into political satire in Burma.

The Irrawaddy revisits this article from February 2008 in commemoration of its 25th anniversary.

An American without legs can climb Mount Everest,” the American president said proudly at a gathering of statesmen. Immediately, the Russian president said, “A Russian without arms can swim across the Atlantic.”

The other world leaders were stunned by the two statements. But the leader of Burma came to the rescue:

“In my country, a man without a head can run the country for 20 years.”

That’s a joke by a well-known comedian known as Godzilla, and it drew loud applause from hundreds of Burmese in Bangkok in January.

Cracking such a joke irks Burma’s rulers and can lead to imprisonment for comedians.

However, the five comedians of Say Yaung Sone & Thee Lay Thee, a Burmese traditional a-nyient performance troupe, go about cracking such jokes, ignoring the fact that the ruling generals wouldn’t like them.

The troupe of Say Yaung Sone (colorful) and Thee Lay Thee (referring to the four comedians: Sein Thee, Pan Thee, Kye Thee and Zee Thee) appeared in Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore in January and has been invited to perform in Western countries.

Godzilla, in his 40s, and the Thee Lay Thee members, in their early 30s, mainly tell jokes about the Burmese regime’s harsh crackdown on the monk-led demonstrations last September, the regime’s corruption, the lack of electricity and the possibility of change in the country in 2008. The jokes are more than enough for the comedians to be put in jail with long sentences.

Even so, Godzilla quips on stage, “After this performance in Bangkok, we’re going to perform in other countries, including Singapore, [South] Korea, the United States, Canada and Germany. After that, we’re going to perform in Moscow.”

A big laugh sweeps over the audience. In Burma, prison is referred to as “Moscow.”

Actually, Godzilla and Thee Lay Thee were brave enough to crack such political jokes, defying the ruling junta, in a powerful and surprising performance in Rangoon in November, just one month after the demonstrations were brutally put down by the military government.

The well-known comedians, including Godzilla, King Kong, Kyaw Htoo and Thee Lay Thee, performed their political satire on Myaw Zin Gyun, an islet in Rangoon’s Kan Daw Gyi lake. They had been asked by authorities to sign a document saying they would not make political jokes on stage. No such luck.

Their jokes focused on the crackdowns against the demonstrations and the arrests of demonstrating monks. The public performance was unprecedented in the 20 years since the current military regime took power in 1988.

Their performance VCD immediately became popular and was banned by the authorities. The VCD soon traveled beyond the country’s borders, and the comedian troupe was invited to perform by Burmese communities in several foreign countries.

Apart from the political stalemate and national reconciliation, their jokes also focus on rampant corruption, religion and UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari.

The latter sketch was among the most popular. Two comedians, Sein Thee and Pan Thee, portray Gambari and Kyaw Hsan, Burma’s information minister.

During their meeting, Kyaw Hsan and Gambari talk about how to negotiate constructively with each other. Because of his worldwide travels, Gambari says he knows what Kyaw Hsan’s up to. Kyaw Hsan says to himself, “This man doesn’t know about Myanmar [Burma].”

Then Kyaw Hsan points to the floor, shouting, “Oh! Look! Dollars! Dollars!” Gambari quickly bends over and picks up the money, saying “I love dollars.”

Kyaw Hsan then swiftly kicks Gambari in the rear, laughing, “This is Myanmar!”

Off stage, Sein Thee, who portrays Gambari, told The Irrawaddy: “That is the joke I like the most. That joke is a reality. I don’t believe in his mission. His trips haven’t brought any results yet.”

Godzilla said, “We comedians are just representatives of the people. We are cracking jokes on behalf of the people.”

Throughout Burma’s history, comedians have told jokes in front of kings and royalty who wanted to know what was really going in their kingdom, especially in remote areas. It was a form of reporting on the public mood.

Comedians are aware of people’s feelings because they travel the country, Godzilla said. Ancient kings liked jokes, and, if they were willing to reform wrongdoings, they could take action based on the jokes.

“Like before, we gather jokes from people from all walks of life,” Godzilla said.

“They sometimes come out with ideas for us to crack jokes in the performance.”

An a-nyeint troupe, he said, is a form of entertainment that tries to relieve people’s suffering, and the jokes can enlighten leaders.

However, the Burmese generals view comedians who tell political jokes as enemies. Since the current regime took power, comedians Zarganar and Par Par Lay have both been detained in jail several times and during the September demonstrations, they were jailed again for about a month each.

Previously, both were imprisoned for several years. Zarganar is internationally respected for his politically biting satire. He received the Lillian Hellman and Dashiel Hammett Award given by the Fund for Free Expression, a committee organized by New York- based Human Rights Watch.

Godzilla said, “Zarganar paved a new road for young comedians in the early 1980s” under the then authoritarian government.

Godzilla and the Thee Lay Thee comedians are determined to keep spreading political satire despite the fact that they will probably face severe prison sentences like their mentors, Zarganar and Par Par Lay.

Sein Thee said, “Even if we are arrested at Rangoon’s airport on the way back home and put in jail, we will continue cracking jokes because we are comedians, and we want to be comedians forever.”

“Not only in this life but also the next life,” he said. “I want to tell jokes to make people happy.”