In the first five minutes of his act, the clown Lu Maw unleashes a barrage of politically charged jokes at his audience.
He unfurls a map; points north, east, everywhere; briefly describes all the internal conflicts within Myanmar (also known as Burma) — the Shan, Kayah, Kayin and Kachin states are home to ethnic insurgent forces that don’t see eye to eye with the largely Bamar central government; then claps and laughs as he describes how he loves it when these forces kill each other.
He says the Kayin fighters are his favorite, because they’re good fighters.
Lu Maw’s act is not a politically correct shtick, but it earns snickers from the small crowd that visits his home each night.
“Don’t take, don’t steal,” he says. “The government doesn’t like competition.”
Lu Maw is one-third of the Moustache Brothers. The other two members are his cousin Lu Zaw and his brother Par Par Lay.
Every punchline holds satirical barbs that parody the totalitarian military regime of Myanmar, the same regime that jailed Par Par Lay and Lu Maw after they performed in Aung San Suu Kyi’s lakeside residence in Yangon in 1996.
The pair were dragged from their beds three nights after they made The Lady laugh.
Totalitarian states favor secret abductions. At the time, state media had this to say: “Then came the turn of comedians Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw. The two in synchronicity attacked any undertakings of the [government], disparaging its dignity, making it a laughing stock and inciting riot and instability.”
The generals, who lived like kings, couldn’t take a joke, so the Moustache Brothers were sent to a prison in Kachin state, where they broke rocks while serving their sentence. Other prisoners agreed to do their share of work if the jokesters would perform. Five years later, they were released.
The pair were sent home but placed under house arrest and only allowed to perform for foreigners within the garage of their house in Mandalay. Its walls are lined with classical Burmese puppets and photographs of the trio posing with well-known visitors.
Par Par Lay was arrested again in 2007, when he lent public support to the monks who led the Saffron Revolution, but was released 37 days later.
He died in August 2013 from kidney disease. During a performance last May, Lu Maw said his brother’s kidney failure was due to the lead paint on the walls of a water tank that Par Par Lay drank from in prison.
Four days after Par Par Lay’s death, Lu Maw and Lu Zaw continued the work of the Moustache Brothers as a duo.
Nowadays, the Moustache Brothers still make jabs at the government. Last year, the country held its first general elections since 1990, but the military drafted a constitution that guarantees its own representatives 25 percent of parliamentary seats and the power to veto constitutional changes. They call it “disciplined democracy”.
Civil representatives also include former military officers who have ditched their uniforms, but bespoke suits don’t change political allegiances. The absurdity of Myanmese politics makes satire easy — corruption, blackouts, economic disparity, nepotism and constant internal conflict are part of the grim reality of modern Burma.
Here is one of Lu Maw’s most popular jokes: “I had a toothache, so I went to Thailand to visit a dentist.
“The dentist asked, ‘Do you not have dentists in Burma?’
“‘Ah, yes,’ I would say, ‘but in Burma, we cannot open our mouths.’”
When faced with an insurmountable foe, the Moustache Brothers found a way to cope by making people laugh. But the little uniformed men who considered themselves kings were, well, little, and still are.
Good leaders don’t fear satire, because they don’t end up as the butt of cruel jokes. If words are enough to hit nerves, to trigger overreactions that lead to disappearances and jail sentences, then it becomes evident that the legitimacy of self-proclaimed leaders is merely a house of cards.
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The Moustache Brothers’ garage and performance space can be found on 29th Street in Mandalay, between 80th and 81st. The show starts at 8:30 p.m. every night, lasts for about one hour and costs 10,000 kyat (about US$7.75). No reservations needed. Just show up.
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