AS popular pique has risen against many authoritarian regimes in Asia, the alternative open to many people has been street protest. For some, however, in the midst of violence, humor serves as a safety valve.
Take last month's protests in Bangkok. Troops killed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people, revealing just how reluctant military rulers can be to cede power. But moments after Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon resigned on May 24 as the nonelected prime minister, Radio Thailand broadcast an American pop tune: "Hit the Road, Jack."
One of the leading political prisoners in Burma is Zargana, a comedian who told antimilitary jokes to protesters in 1988-89. He knew his humor was a form of shame, a powerful force in Asia, and that it could strip the military of its legitimacy to rule.
The military in Burma has so stifled dissent that the only group that can protest are Buddhist monks, who command almost universal respect by Burmese custom. As they do every morning, the orange-robed monks walk with begging bowls to collect food and alms from the faithful; in Mandalay city, monks walk around the military camp by the hundreds, poking fun at soldiers.
Such antics of defiance are a form of political theater and can bring smiles and hope to people cowed by rulers who put order ahead of freedom to achieve economic growth.
"In much of Asia, active politics is seen as elitist. Below that is a culture of jokes, cartoons, and satire, which are a way for people to send signals as a form of criticism," says Southeast Asia specialist John Clammer of Sophia University in Tokyo. "If you're not allowed to say many things in public, you're forced to read between the lines."
Filipinos, during the 1986 "people's power" uprising against dictator Ferdinand Marcos, successfully stopped the military's tanks, and then the next day wore T-shirts that read: "I stopped a tank." In the months before that, telling jokes about Marcos had become a national pastime, helping to divide the military.
Many touches of tension-releasing political humor have been expressed in the difficult transitions from military rule to Western-style democracy that have taken place in the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea since 1986; and in the unsuccessful struggles for democracy in China, Burma, and Vietnam.
Pressured to conform under authoritarian rule, many Asians say they love to sing the Frank Sinatra hit "My Way," simply because so few of them actually can do much their way.
Even Asian leaders are not above cracking a joke in a crisis. Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who intervened to stop the military from killing more people on the streets of Bangkok, showed his displeasure with a touch of gentle sarcasm.
"You may be surprised as to why you were invited to this meeting," the king told General Suchinda as the soon-to-be-dismissed prime minister crawled on his knees, Thai-style, for a meeting with the monarch.
During the 1980s, Thailand made steady progress from military to civilian rule, only to see the military reassert itself last year in a coup. The king initially accepted the new regime but a rising urban middle-class defied the top brass by taking to the streets. After seeing the military's bloody response, the king told General Suchinda, "I would describe the current situation as mad."
In between the tears and blood of protests against oppression, many Asians have needed a few smiles and a laugh when political events got a little crazy. At times the humor has inflamed rulers. At other times it has soothed the people. But when it hits home and discredits a ruler, it can be no joke.