Moustache Mayhem
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Saturday, March 23, 2019


Moustache Mayhem

By Tony Broadmoor/Mandalay MAY, 2002 - VOLUME 10 NO.4

Once imprisoned and now blacklisted by the government, the Moustache Brothers’ comedy troupe continues to push the country’s political envelope. Working in the gravel yard was never supposed to be a part of life for Burma’s notorious Moustache Brothers comedy troupe. But on January 7, 1996, two of its members—U Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw—were arrested in Mandalay, a day after delivering a series of politically sensitive jokes during an Independence Day performance at Aung San Suu Kyi’s house in Rangoon. They were initially sentenced to seven years in prison, with the first stop being the distant Kyein Kran Ka Hard Labor Camp in northern Burma’s Kachin State. Cut off from their family back home, the two cousins began their five-and-a-half arduous years in Burma’s penal system before being released in July 2001. At their eclectic garage-cum-home theater in Mandalay, the Moustache Brothers recounted their tales of prison life, the treatment given to their families during their incarceration and the history of performance art in their own family, while explaining to The Irrawaddy the roots of traditional Burmese art in Mandalay. The Moustache Brothers, who since being released are again performing nightly at their home in Mandalay, said prisoners at the hard labor camp were surprised to see the increased security measures imposed against the two comedians. U Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were the camp’s first political prisoners. But instead of donning the normal chain-link shackle that connects both legs, their ankles were separated by a two-foot metal bar, which made even the smallest step a laborious undertaking. Shackled and swinging pick axes into boulders for fourteen hours a day was how they would spend their first two months in detention. They spent the next six months in solitary confinement before being sent to two separate prisons in northern Burma. "We visited U Par Par Lay over thirty times in prison, but we were never able to actually see him," says Ko Shwe Bo, younger brother of U Par Par Lay. During their confinement, life was also far from peaceful for the rest of the family. Although never officially arrested by the government, weekly forced labor assignments became part of their routine, as did frequent meetings with authorities from the local Peace and Development Council, who wanted to assess whether they were also sowing seeds of dissent. Nowadays, the whole family seems unfazed by their burdensome past. The current troupe is comprised of roughly twelve family members representing the third and fourth generations of performers to come from their family. Although the group still draws in tourists every night, the Moustache Brothers are kept on a government blacklist, preventing them from performing publicly and officially prohibiting them from even performing at home. "They tried to stop us, but we still perform every night under our roof," says Moustache Brothers’ member Lu Maw. "We are very lucky to have four generations of performers." The Moustache Brothers also say that Mandalay has long been the cultural center for arts in Burma, particularly Mandalay University, which historically was considered the most advanced institution in the country for teaching of the arts. The troupe compares the city’s southern section—which they say used to be home to dozens of local dance troupes—to London’s theatrically charged West End. The Moustache Brothers currently perform two specific styles of Burmese performance art—a-nyeint pwe and nat traditional dances—styles they say are threatened with extinction. A-nyeint pwe is a form of theatre that combines dance, music, opera and comedy, which at times is politically and socially driven and seeks to make light of the stresses of everyday life. Nat is performed as the opening dance at Buddhist Pagoda festivals, birthday parties and seasonal fairs. But due to a government ban on gatherings of more than five people, these celebrations seldom occur these days. The troupe feels that it is their duty to keep these traditions alive. "The arts, drama and traditional Burmese music were founded [in Mandalay]," says U Par Par Lay. "They have been here since the days of the monarchy, and we worry that a-nyeint is going to disappear from Mandalay." The door to the Moustache Brothers’ theater is always open, says the group, and visitors to Mandalay are encouraged to drop by for a lesson in local culture. Just look for the giant billboard above their home tucked away on the otherwise nondescript block of 39th street in the city’s south end. The Moustache Brothers will no doubt be there, performing as long as they are physically able. "The truth needs courage," says U Par Par Lay. "We have to dance when we need to dance."

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