Burmese comic puts conflict with government on stage

His relatives were jailed for joking about the military regime, but Lu Maw keeps their cases alive at his theater.

The visitor could be forgiven for missing Mandalay's theater district. There's no glitzy neon or marquees, and on this night, there are barely any lights at all, thanks to the nearly daily blackouts in this Burmese city of 800,000. But at the Moustache Brothers' theater, the show goes on.

Since early 1996, the footlights have burned for the return of the troupe's leader, comedian Par Par Lay, and fellow comic and cousin Lu Zaw. That was the year the pair were arrested for doing what they did best - making people laugh. At an Independence Day party hosted by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the two told jokes comparing government co-operative workers with thieves. The military government saw nothing funny about it and handed them seven-year prison sentences for spreading "false news, knowing beforehand that it is untrue."

"Now I'm holding the fort," remaining Moustache Brother Lu Maw cheerfully tells tonight's theatergoers - about a half-dozen foreign tourists.

Effectively blacklisted from taking the show on the road, the way most troupes earn their living, Mr. Lu Maw and his family now rely on the tourist trade. But that support has taken on an extra dimension - the tourists have become an important publicity tool in a campaign to free the two jailed comics and keep them safe from harm while they remain in prison.

Along with offerings of Burmese cheroot cigarettes and Chinese tea comes a brief rundown of the Moustache Brothers' case and an appeal for patrons to tell others about it. It's not talking politics, says Lu Maw, which is against the law, it's just giving information on the public record.

"Every day I'm playing with fire, I know - I'm skating on thin ice," Lu Maw says later, displaying his penchant for colloquial English even as he struggles with fluency. "Knowing I can do something for my brother gives me strength and keeps me laughing. But when [the audience goes] home I feel sad."

After the welcome Lu Maw plunges into an explanation of a-nyeint pwe, a contemporary yet traditional Burmese theater form mixing dance, music, opera, drama, and slapstick humor that usually takes topics from everyday life. Behind him hang troupe photos and dozens of Burmese marionettes for sale, along with a somewhat obscured photo of Aung San Suu Kyi, known as 'The Lady' among Burmese people.

"Any villages where there's hot news, we pick it up and use it," says Lu Maw. Government officials have warned the troupe against telling political jokes, but in Burma, also known as Myanmar, "you can't avoid talking about politics when you talk about daily life," adds Lu Maw.

Long a pariah among nations when it comes to human rights, Burma's military regime was again condemned at the recently concluded annual meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights, with the 53-nation body criticizing "the continuing pattern of gross and systematic violations of human rights." But there are signs that in the Moustache Brothers case, publicity may be working. In January prison officials increased the frequency of family visits to deliver food parcels to Par Par Lay at his prison in Myitkina, from once every two months to once every two weeks. No family had been allowed to visit Lu Zaw. Then, in March, the International Red Cross reported both prisoners were allowed to see their family members face to face for the first time in four years.

For now, Lu Maw says all he can do is stay on the stage and wait for his fellow showmen's release. "We are artists and we are different from ordinary people," he says. "We want the freedom to joke."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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