Comic who mocked Burmese junta arrested

As popular comedian Par Par Lay is held for the third time, his brother fears for his safety.

In the raw charisma department, Burma's opposition has something of an advantage over a military regime so nondescript its leaders are often referred to simply as "the generals." There's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who boasts a Nobel Prize and a place on Esquire magazine's 2002 "The Hottest Women We Absolutely Cannot Think of in That Way" list.

Not far behind is former movie star Par Par Lay, the lead comic of the Moustache Brothers, the most famous comedy troupe in Burma (also known as Myanmar). His wit often targets the government, and landed him in prison twice in the 1990s.

At midnight on Sept. 25, Mr. Par Par Lay was jailed a third time. The 60-year-old comic had been cooking curry for monks when he was taken from a community hall near his Mandalay home, says his brother and troupe mate, Lu Maw.

Since Par Par Lay returned from his last stint in jail in 2001, his troupe has been banned from performing in public, but his company still gives English-language shows for foreigners in the front room of their house, selling Moustache Brothers T-shirts to provide for their "slush fund," as Mr. Lu Maw puts it.

Par Par Lay was last arrested in January 1996 after performing at a pro-democracy celebration at the Rangoon compound of Ms. Suu Kyi, who is a friend.

His routine involved ridiculing military intelligence spies and calling the generals "thieves." For this, he was sentenced to seven years' hard labor and was reportedly tortured. After serving five-and-a-half years of his sentence, he was released, possibly due in part to a high-profile publicity campaign by international entertainers, including Bill Maher and Rob Reiner, and The Body Shop. "That's why my brother come back alive," says Lu Maw.

It's not clear what specifically precipitated the comedian's detention this time. Lu Maw says that wisecracks about the regime could have something to do with it. "In September [we had] many new jokes. They heard the new jokes – that's why they arrest," he says, substituting "they" for "the military," as Burmese people often do.

It could also be the popular comedian's influence. "Par Par Lay has many friends who are comedians. That's why the government is afraid," says Lu Maw. "He's a good organizer."

But Par Par Lay had neither performed nor organized – only marched with the tens of thousands of Burmese demonstrators in Mandalay's streets, says his brother. Unlike in Rangoon, no one was reported killed in the protests in Mandalay. "Different from [Rangoon], [the soldiers were just] shooting in the air. And they throw the tear gas," he says. "That's why [in] Mandalay, we're lucky."

By early October, when I met with Lu Maw, the demonstrations had ended, winding down after the violent crackdown on protesters by the military. But armed soldiers patrolled the streets, and Lu Maw says that people were still terrified of the government – particularly after dark, when the military went on detention sprees. "Many people, many people every night arrest[ed]," says Lu Maw. "The military raid monastery. At midnight. Many monk[s] [are taken] away."

Lu Maw says he wanted to get extra clothes and a toothbrush to Par Par Lay – but he has bigger hopes, as well. He's also hoping that public awareness of his brother's arrest will lead to a campaign that will pressure the regime for his release once again. "If nobody knows, Par Par Lay tortured," he says. "If you make publicity, he comes back alive."

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