RANGOON — The leader of The Moustache Brothers, a Mandalay comedy trio famous for their biting satire directed at the Burmese government, died on Friday in Burma’s second city. He was 67 years old.
“Par Par Lay died at 1pm today after suffering from prostate cancer,” brother Lu Maw told The Irrawaddy.
For more than 30 years, the brothers have charmed fans, including Burmese parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi, with topical satire that put a lighter spin on the prolonged suffering of ordinary people in the Southeast Asian country.
Since 2001, the government has barred them from performing their a-nyeint pwe in public. A-nyeint pwe is a traditional Burmese vaudeville performance in which a female artist dances and sings to light music while supported by comedians. The performances occupy a popular place in the nation’s cultural milieu.
With the ban, the three renowned comedians had for more than a decade relied on foreign visitors to feed their 11 family members by staging live performances that combined comedy, classic Burmese dance and satirical criticisms of Burma’s military regime.
Every evening foreign tourists—drawn by press reports, guidebooks or word of mouth—were known to venture out into the dimly lit streets of Mandalay to make their way to The Moustache Brothers’ makeshift stage in Maha Aung Myae Township to the city’s south.
On a backstreet theater stage and out of “public” sight, The Moustache Brothers joked about government mismanagement, corruption, blackouts, water shortages, inflation and other grim realities that have plagued the Burmese people’s everyday existences.
“We still struggle to make a living. If the government lifts its ban on us, we will be quite alright,” Par Par Lay told The Irrawaddy in an interview last year.
In 1990, Par Par Lay was thrown into prison for six months for his political satire following the then military regime’s refusal to honor the landslide victory of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party in the country’s first elections in 30 years.
Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw, another member of the trio, were arrested in 1996 for their performance at the Nobel laureate’s lakeside villa in Rangoon. During the 2007 Saffron Revolution, Par Par Lay was again taken away by security personnel during a night raid at his home for his support of the monk-led pro-democracy demonstrations.
Lu Maw on Friday said his brother died without having the chance to enjoy true freedom of expression, because the government still hasn’t revoked its ban on The Moustache Brothers’ performing in public.
“But he didn’t care,” Lu Maw said. “So we dared to make public performances since last year. To our surprise, people heartily welcomed us back. Par Par Lay was very happy about it.”
Hsu Nget, a Mandalay-based writer, said he was saddened by the death of the comedian, whom he praised as a talented entertainer who never shied away from criticizing the government to highlight the Burmese people’s suffering.
“As a comedian, he did a good job by crafting biting satire that reflected the times we had all been through,” Hsu Nget said. “His jokes are so Burmese that it’s no wonder people like them so much.”
Lu Maw described his brother as a man who dared to proffer in-your-face political humor, even at the height of the former military regime’s repression.
“So with the openness we now have, it’s no wonder he unleashed his criticism about the government more than before,” he said.
“What is sad is that my big brother did not live to see the 2015 election, because he always told his audiences that ‘it’s the most important moment for our country.’”
Par Par Lay is survived by his wife, Shwe Man Daw Win Mar.