Cheerful dissent

The Moustache Brothers are Lu Zaw, left, Par Par Lay and Lu Maw. Their act banned, the three continue to perform political satire at home, in English. (Paul Watson / Los Angeles Times)

The generals, to put it mildly, can't take a joke.

But the Moustache Brothers make their living mocking fools, including those who wear military uniforms. So they have drawn a battle line in this country's long struggle for democracy with a small stage that cuts across their cramped living room, site of the three-man comedy troupe's nightly performance.

The military regime silenced street protests last fall by arresting and, in some cases, shooting peaceful demonstrators. That has left dissidents such as comedians Lu Zaw, Lu Maw and the lead satirist of the family, Par Par Lay, to tend the embers of opposition by poking fun at the regime.

In the past, the junta that rules Myanmar -- also known as Burma -- has tried to shut them up too, hoping to intimidate them with prison terms, hard labor and torture. But the comedians are exploiting a loophole in a ban on their act by staying on the attack at home, in English, with biting humor that ridicules the junta as a bunch of bumbling thugs, thieves and spies.

The Moustache Brothers, one of Myanmar's most famous comedic acts, are determined to get the last laugh.

"Joking shares the suffering," said Lu Maw. "That's what the government is afraid of because jokes are like wildfire. They want to hide deep problems under the covers, and jokes spread the word, mouth to mouth, door to door and outside the country. Then they are disgraced. They are ashamed."

Lu Maw, 58, is the middle brother, and since his fractured English is the closest to fluent, he warms up the small groups of tourists who fill the plastic lawn chairs in the brothers' living room each night.

He cracks jokes rapid-fire, like a comic machine gun, under the harsh white light of six bare fluorescent tubes. Often he riffs on expressions he's picked up from the folks who buy tickets or while listening to foreign broadcasts on shortwave radio, like "Bite the dust," "New bottle, same wine," and "My brothers and I, we're skating on thin ice!"

He laughs louder than most at his best lines, and many times in an interview pauses to tell the reporter: "That's a good one. Write that one down."

The living room theater is on Mandalay's 39th Street, the Broadway of a-nyient, a centuries-old tradition that combines stand-up comedy, puppetry, traditional music and dance with subtle political satire.

The stage, covered in red all-weather carpet, is half a step up from a brick floor. The wall behind it is strung with marionettes, and two rattling fans hang from the low ceiling. Audience members come by rickshaw, cab or tour bus, and pay by donation.

On a recent night, about a dozen people, mostly young backpackers and a few journalists who had posed as tourists to get into the country, helped out when Lu Maw's English failed him. A few gladly got into the act when the comedians needed more hands to hold up painted wooden signs naming the world's biggest spy agencies, and declaring, "Moustache Brothers are under surveillance."

After warming up with safe jokes about wives and backdoor men, Par Par Lay changed out of his fan dance costume, white robe and glittering gold pillbox hat, and leaped on stage in a black robber's mask, wielding a toy pistol, while his brother declared that civil servants behaved like Jesse James.

"So much corruption," Lu Maw explained through an old-fashioned microphone to the audience. "That's why this guy has been three times in the clink, up the river -- in the big house!"

Myanmar's military holds itself up as the indispensable defender of a great culture, so gagging one of the biggest acts still performing in an ancient art form isn't simple. When the generals were in a slightly better mood in 1996, they decided they could stand a little ribbing from popular comedians.

But the junta did a squeeze and release that same year. It barred the Moustache Brothers from taking their show on the road, and refuses to issue permits to anyone who might want to hire them. But the regime tolerates the comedians' home theater, so long as they perform in English, for foreign visitors whose opinions the generals happily ignore.

Locals are turned back at the doors, but the doors stay wide open, so they often gather on the street and watch the whole act clearly, along with spies who keep an eye on the Moustache Brothers to see if they're becoming a threat to stability. The generals are easily riled.

As the act's headliner, Par Par Lay takes most of the heat for the jokes. He has been arrested three times, most recently on Sept. 25 as he was giving alms to Buddhist monks, who helped lead the strongest wave of anti-junta protests in two decades.

He was released from prison five weeks later, although many others arrested are still in jail, including some 25 Mandalay members of jailed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, local activists say.