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Laughing through the junta's gag

PoliticsEspionage and IntelligenceEntertainmentCrime, Law and JusticeMyanmarJails and PrisonsEngland

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.

Par Par Lay, 60, learned comedy from his father, who picked it up from his own father. Par Par Lay started out professionally in the mid-1960s and soon headed a traveling road show of three comedians, 10 female dancers, eight musicians and five roadies.

His first arrest was in 1990, when he performed at Suu Kyi's birthday party. In a comedy bit about farmers' hats, Par Par Lay boasted, "My hat is so large it protects all of Myanmar."

Since Suu Kyi's party symbol was a star-topped hat, the crack could be seen as a subtle jab at the junta, delivered in the tradition of a-nyient. The audience got it, but so did the generals, who weren't amused. They threw Par Par Lay in a Mandalay jail for six months.

In 1996, Par Par Lay and his youngest brother, Lu Zaw, 56, went to Suu Kyi's house in Yangon to entertain at an Independence Day party attended by some 2,000 people, including the American and British ambassadors.

Lu Maw stayed at home, ready to shoot his mouth off if his brothers landed in the hoosegow. Knowing their script for the two-hour show, that was an easy call.

The comedians took aim at the country's corrupt education system, mocking teachers for idly reading magazines, knitting or skipping class altogether in the daytime and then charging their students for night classes at the teachers' homes.

As junta spies listened in, Par Par Lay dug a deeper hole with jokes about constant power shortages, money problems and desperate women turning to prostitution, only to spread HIV and AIDS.

The two brothers and their troupe returned to Mandalay on the next morning's train. That night, around midnight, government agents knocked at the door, rousted Lu Zaw, Par Par Lay and his wife, Win Mar, a dancer in the group, and hauled them off to the city's military intelligence headquarters. There they joined the troupe's other dancers, musicians and roadies.

Interrogators ordered them to sit straight in chairs, with their feet off the ground, and then stood behind the prisoners to pepper them with questions. If they weren't satisfied with the answers, the agents beat the entertainers' ears or forced them to do 500 squat-ups at a time, according to Lu Maw.

"It was like torture," he said.

After two weeks of interrogation, everyone was released except the comedians, who were put on trial under an emergency law the generals had enacted when they seized power in 1962. The two Moustache Brothers were convicted and sentenced to seven years' hard labor, deep in the jungle.

Hooded, with their hands cuffed to their seats, they were transported by train, the first political prisoners to be thrown in with hardened criminals such as murderers and drug dealers at the Kyein Kran Ka labor camp, said Lu Maw.

The comedians say they spent their days shackled in chain gangs, pounding sledgehammers against huge rocks to make gravel for roads, which are often built by forced labor in Myanmar. Razor-sharp stone chips sliced their skin.

News of their imprisonment spread, and Hollywood stars including Rob Reiner, Ted Danson and Bill Maher added their signatures to a 1.6-million-name petition, 18 feet long, which demanded the release of Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw.

While behind bars, the brothers kept sharpening their act, performing for their fellow convicts.

The generals moved the comedians to separate prisons after two months' hard labor and freed them July 13, 2001.

Par Par Lay's wife says she didn't recognize the thin, wasted man that hard time had made of her husband. " 'He had no hair -- and no moustache,' " Lu Maw quoted her as saying, laughing at the thought.

"They are very tough, good comedians. They never gave up -- never.

"We're still not afraid," he added. "We're comedians. This is our job!"

paul.watson@latimes.com

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