Comedians Not Amused by Burma’s Reforms

By Lawi Weng 7 November 2012

While Burma has received international plaudits for political reforms undertaken since President Thein Sein assumed office last year, one section of society is not laughing at being left out of the liberalization process—the nation’s comedians.

The Moustache Brothers and Thee Lay Thee, two of Burma’s leading comedy troupes, have complained that they continue to have performances restricted despite the raft of recent democratic changes undertaken by Naypyidaw.

Par Par Lay told The Irrawaddy from The Moustache Brothers’ backstreet theater in Burma’s second largest city of Mandalay that the government now allows all cultural dancing groups to put on shows except political satire.

The 64-year-old urged the authorities to mimic other political changes by removing the ban from his group, which has been prohibited from performing since 2001 after he was released from prison in Myitkyina Township, Kachin State, where he served seven years for making fun of the then-ruling junta generals.

“I welcome the political changes and I am even glad about them,” he said by telephone on Wednesday. “But these changes have not been for me.”

Par Par Lay says he has served his punishment for joking about former junta supremo Snr-Gen Than Shwe and spy chief Gen Khin Nyut, who were then the most powerful figures in the country. Now he wants permission to continue performing with his troupe.

“I have already served sentences in prison,” he explained. “I want to ask why the authorities have not given me permission to do my favorite performances. I would be happy if they announce that Par Par Lay can wear his trousers, hats and make jokes. They do not have to pay anything to say this.”

The government has barred the group from performing in public with their anyeint 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.

Without government approval, the Moustache Brothers are 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 began holding shows at their houses.

“They did not even allow us to open our performance at our house,” said Par Par Lay. “But I just told them to arrest me for it if they wanted.”

He explained that people are still afraid of hiring The Moustache Brothers because they remained banned for so many years, but countless bookings would materialize if the authorities simply announced that they were now free to perform.

Even though his group continues to be blacklisted, Par Par Lay continues to give political dhamma talks in Mandalay to supporters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the run-up to the 2015 general election.

Although The Moustache Brothers—comprised of comic trio Par Par Lay, Lu Maw and Lu Zaw—are famous for their long-term support for the Nobel Laureate, they have never joined her party.

Thee Lay Thee, another comedian troupe similar in style to The Moustache Brothers, also voiced concern that Thein Sein’s new reformist administration continues to restrict their shows.

Group member Kye Thee said that the local authorities made problems prior to a booking at the National Theater in Rangoon on Monday. He explained that they only granted permission for the show two days prior to the opening night so selling tickets and finding financial backers was impossible.

“Businessmen who were interested in helping us were afraid of reprisals from the authorities,” he said.

Kye Thee said that the National Theatre usually costs 1.2 million kyat (US $1,400) to rent, but the authorities increased the price to 3.5 million kyat ($4,000) in order to put them off performing.

Thee Lay Thee is comprised of four comedians—Sein Thee, Pan Thee, Kye Thee and Zee Thee—and only just returned to Burma in September last year in the wake of the current political reforms.

“I want to say there is still no freedom of art in our country even though they say that things have opened up,” added Kye Thee.