In Myanmar jokes can get you into serious trouble, as the internationally celebrated Moustache Brothers found out the hard way. In 1996 they performed at an Independence Day celebration at Aung San Suu Kyi´s Yangon compound, telling politically tinged jokes about Myanmar generals. For two of the three “brothers” (Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw), the result was arrest and 7 years hard labour. In 1997 several Hollywood comedians wrote to the government in protest. Meanwhile, the third brother, Lu Maw, kept the Mandalay show going with the help of his wife.
After their release in 2002 the reunited Moustache Brothers remained blacklisted from playing at outside events (marriages, funerals and so on). However, they played a series of gala performances at home attended – inevitably – by government agents. The regional commander soon said to Par Par Lay not to perform at home anymore.
When he got home, some tourists had already gathered for that night’s show, and he and his family imaginatively decided to perform without costumes and makeup. Thus the show went on for the tourists (and the KGB people – Lu Maw´s nickname for Myanmar´s military intelligence). They explained they were merely “demonstrating” a performance, since they could not do a “real” one without costumes. Somehow it worked.
“They have ordered us to stop 6 times”, says Lu Maw. “But it goes in one ear and out the other. That´s our job!”
The performance has become exclusively for tourists. Locals who attend would probably be followed by the police, but foreigners experience no problems. Following the September 2007 demonstrations, Par Par Lay suffered another month in jail, but the shows have never stopped. They are still performed in a single room with just a dozen plastic chairs a yard away from the performers. Par Par Lay died in August 2013 of cancer; Lu Maw and Lu Zaw are continuing with the shows.