Laughing At The Devil: Burma’s Moustache Brothers
Laughing At The Devil: An Account Of Burma’s Moustache Brothers
By Adam Vink
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Milan Kundera, the great Czech writer who saw his own work and personal health subject to the whims of maniacal and depraved regime, once wrote that ‘No great movement designed to change the world can bear to be laughed at or belittled. ‘Mockery’ he insisted ‘is a rust that corrodes all it touches.’
A world away, three brothers have proved Kundera’s veracity by staring directly into the eyes of one of the world’s most brutal regimes – and laughing at what they saw.
The villain: Burma’s military junta – known in Burmese as the Tatmadaw. Such a name deserves a high throne in the lexicon of despotisms and tyrannical regimes, right along side Baathism, militant Wahhabiism, and Kim Jong-Ilism. It is a name dreadful enough that for many Burmese, it remains generally unspoken - wiped from popular usage, except if followed by fawning propitiations of praise and gratitude.
Drunk on the proceeds from Burma’s massive energy resources, the opium and precious gem trades and succor from unscrupulous Chinese investment, the Tatmadaw certainly seem to believe that they are the greatest movement Burma has ever seen and have unquestionably succeeded in ‘changing the world’ into a gloomy and oppressive one for its subjects.
The heroes: three brothers with unfeasibly large moustaches; relics of an ancient Burmese tradition of vaudevillian theatre, comedy and dance known as A- Nyeint; ungrateful recipients of over a decade of imprisonment, torture, hard labor and harassment for the monstrous crime of telling a joke.
"In Burma we used to call thieves, thieves. Now we call them the government." Subversive drollery such as this discharged at a performance in 1996 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the National League for Democracy (the party led by Aung Sang Suu Kyi whose overwhelming victory in 1990 elections were ignored by the Tatmadaw) earned two of the brothers a backstage pass into Burma’s notorious prison system where for over five years they were forced, alongside rapists and murderers, to crush rocks for roads.
The pair were released after international pressure that included a high profile campaign by entertainers such as Eddie Izzard and Bill Maher. However, the brothers and their A- Nyieint troupe of dancers and musicians (and roadies) are now blacklisted - the family remains under surveillance, subjected to intimidation, and the brothers are periodically detained without charge or trial.
Despite this, they still give nightly performances (when possible) in English to tourists at their Mandalay home. This arrangement furnishes the brothers with much needed financial support, news and conversation from abroad, while seeming - for now - to be tolerated by the Tatmadaw.
Beyond the song and dance of the performance however, the brothers provides, at least superficially, an opportunity for tourists with even an ounce of conscience to join their catharsis, and witness the front line of artistic activism and genuine dissent in one of the most dangerous countries on earth in which to do so.
On a ludicrously hot February afternoon this year, I dropped in at the family home in Mandalay for a spot of tea and some light subversive chit-chat. I arrive to find the brothers draped over outdoor furniture, looking solitary and ruminative. Later, Lu Maw (the unofficial ‘spokesman’ for the family] tells me: “in Burma, we are all under house arrest” and I reflect on this first impression. Despite the brother’s immense optimism, ennui stalks even this famous Mandalay abode.
In no time however, the family is roused; stools are bought out, as are pots of tea, nibbles, family memorabilia, huge smiles and that apparently limitless Burmese warmth generosity and friendliness that invades every encounter with local Burmese people.
Lu Maw is the only family member that speaks English. Absent from the 1996 performance, Lu Maw chose to spend the time he had free from shackles and backbreaking work learning English from tourists. It is difficult to record with exact accuracy our conversation, as his rapid and agitated English, (aided by an impressive arsenal of the most egregious clichés and prosaisms- letting the cat out of the bag, spilling the beans etc.) though highly entertaining, is a challenge to comprehend entirely.
The other family members join in with the few words they know, assisted by wooden boards covered with such choice terms as: “ egalitarian”, “slush fund” and (my favorite), “euphemism”. The family makes curious use of the boards in their show and in conversation for comic effect, though the words are generally far from comical.
Between furious tokes of his cheroot and flicks through his scrapbook (filled with newspaper clippings, legal terminology and English vocabulary lists), Lu Maw imparts his family’s story; an honest account of life in impoverished Burma; his plans to bring down the regime; and even glimpses of a Burma post-Tatmadaw. Speaking to most Burmese on any of these subjects can place them in serious danger and it is certainly liberating to have such a discussion after a mentally stifling week or so traveling around the country.
Concerning the family business: Par Par Lay is ‘brother number 1’ and leader of the troupe. He was in his time, one of the most successful comedians in Burma; a friend of Aung Sang Suu Kyi and outspoken critic of the regime. Brothers 2 and 3 – Lu Maw and Lu Zaw – make up the three comedians. Before 1996, the Moustache brothers and their troupe of singers and dancers were highly sought after at festivals, weddings and other events, traveling across the country and earning good money. Now, blacklisted and unable to be hired or perform in public, the brothers and a handful of close family members are all that is left of their troupe.
Lu Maw tells me that following their arrest in 1996, Lu Zaw and Par Par Lay were subjected to sleep deprivation, beatings (particularly around the ears and feet) and intense interrogation. During their “trial” Ms Suu Kyi was summoned as a witness, though moments before her train was to depart Yangon for Mandalay, her carriage was “accidentally” detached; the Nobel Peace prize recipient never made it to court. All other witnesses had similar ‘incidents’ preventing them from appearing.
The brothers were handed their seven-year sentence behind screens preventing family and supporters from seeing them. Sent to a forced labor camp in the far north of the country whose exact whereabouts was kept secret, the brothers worked from dawn to dusk, their feet bound in iron bars. When the family finally discovered their location, they were still denied access to the brothers. Some signed receipts for food packages were the only contact Par Par Lay’s wife had with him in this time.
When Par Par Lay was arrested again last year for joining in the protests led by local Buddhist monks, the family were again not told where he was taken, for how long he would be held, or in what condition he was being kept. Eventually he was released after suffering further indignities at the hands of Burma’s secret police, known as Military Intelligence (MI).
I ask why a government, apparently so confident of its authority, would take so much trouble with them, when most Burmese are too scared even to be seen in the brother’s street. “Burmese trust artists because they tell the truth. In the past, people come to A-Nyeint performance instead of reading a newspaper” Lu Maw tells me, “this makes the government afraid.”
Discussing the 2007 protests, Lu Maw is eager to point out that while such events are necessary and ‘good’, they ultimately impair the contact normal Burmese have with the outside world, which had been steadily growing over the past several years. It is this contact, that the brothers see as the greatest threat to the regime.
“Please come, tell them to come” Lu Maw told me when I bought up the often controversial subject of tourism in Burma. “We will spill our guts out to them… We do not know how to use a pistol, so we must fight with our mouths”.
I ask about the recent announcement of a constitutional referendum and possible elections, though Lu Maw dismisses all talk of political change as “same wine, new bottle”. Instead, the brothers believe very much in the power of international pressure and the economic and cultural exchange that takes place when foreign media and tourists take an interest in their country. More than anything, the brothers want their story told, along with the story of every Burmese citizen daily toiling under such indignity and subjection. “If you want to help us” they say, “start by coming and saying hello.”
As I go to leave the brothers’ house, Lu Maw thrusts several business cards into my hand, daring me to show them to the next policeman I encounter. After an unnerving chortle, Lu Maw points to the derelict and disheveled street outside. Recalling its former history as Mandalay’s theatre land, he assures me “One day this street will be full of tourists again. They will come to see our Broadway; our West-End”.
Until then, each night to the dull groan of an old diesel generator (even Mandalay, Burma’s second city, suffers chronic power outages) and with the fetid smell of beetel nut and stale cheroot smoke, the show goes wearily – stoically, defiantly on.
The only train from Mandalay to Yangon passes the new Burmese ‘capital’ Naypyidaw in the dead of night and one is made aware of arrival by the abrupt and inordinate light glaring out from a country which suffers in all other parts from severe power outages. Founded in 2005, the Tatmadaw ‘relocated’ to this milieu de nulle part in what has been described as ‘dictatorship by cartography’; the fires of revolution may engulf Yangon or Mandalay, it is thought, but the regime – cocooned in its Xanadu - will remain fully functional and omnipotent.
However, this retreat into the heart of the country may signal the beginning of the end for one of the world’s cruelest and most pointless regimes. Their ideology discredited, and their economic ineptitude glaringly obvious, they must be as aware of their own illegitimacy and corruption as their opponents.
So here in Naypyidaw, the Tatmadaw dwell in their ugly and austere erections, as far from the people, the culture and the beauty of Burma as duty allows. Far from Nobel Prize winning democratisers in the south, and mocking, sneering comedians in the north. Far from the foreigners trickling through the streets furnishing the locals with much needed cash, conversation and bootlegged copies of the new (very much banned) Rambo movie.
Not far from the brothers house, several large billboards adorning the walls of the Mandalay palace (recently renovated by forced labor) read: “TATMADAW AND THE PEOPLE IN ETERNAL UNITY ANYONE ATTEMPTING TO DIVIDE THEM IS OUR ENEMY”; and more sinisterly; “THE TATMADAW SHALL NEVER BETRAY THE NATIONAL CAUSE”. As I stand with both locals and foreigners alike, gazing up ludicrously at these impossibly stupid slogans, I recall a joke made by Lu Maw about their precarious situation amongst a gradually imploding regime.
“Monks protest at inflation, higher prices”, he recalled, ‘in 1996 Moustache Brothers get seven years for one joke. Now because of inflation two jokes get 100 years” he declares before breaking into disarming fits of laughter.
“We can only joke, we are comedians - this is our job. We are not afraid because we are already dead meat.” Against a culture as potent as that in Burma, so too is the Tatmadaw.