MANDALAY - A narrow little street between two houses, filthy walls on both sides, baby clothes hung out to dry - is this really where the enemies of the state reside? But the taxi driver is sure. He gets out of his car, walks down the alley and turns to wave me on. We reach a fence behind which stands a kind of garage containing a large straw mat and about a dozen pink plastic chairs.
This is where, every day at 8:30 P.M., a one-hour rebellion against Myanmar’s military dictatorship takes place, led by brothers Par Par Lay, 64, and Lu Maw, 62, with their cousin Lu Zaw, who’s not saying how old he is but whose face is as deeply furrowed as those of the two brothers.
The trio have turned their facial hair into a trademark, going by the name of the "Moustache Brothers." Their show is the answer to vaudeville in this country many still call Burma, with puppets, costumes, dance, music (emanating from an ancient cassette player), and slapstick. There are also some jokes, such as: "Why do the Burmese go to Thailand when they need a dentist? Because in Myanmar you are not allowed to open your mouth."
The Moustache Brothers have been putting on their show for 30 years, which means that for 30 years they have been persecuted by the military junta in power. And now the opening up of the regime -- that since 1962 has oppressed Myanmar’s people with violence and the much-feared Special Branch intelligence service -- is a victory for their patient, pinprick dissent. A year ago, the regime released several hundred political prisoners and announced reforms, such as loosening its grip on web censorship and the press. The junta even recognized the victory of the Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) in April’s parliamentary elections.
At first, the trio traveled with other family members around the country, performing at weddings, parties and funerals. However in 1996, a performance attended by Peace Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, then under house arrest, proved to be their undoing. On a video of Par Par Lay performing his “Government Dance” – which depicts a government official stealing money from the poor -- Suu Kyi looks like she is amused. The generals were not amused, however, and struck the performers off the list of state-licensed artists. Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were subsequently hauled away in the night and sentenced to seven years labor in a work camp up north.
Here they spent grueling days hammering rock into gravel. For months on end, their relatives had no news of them. But it didn’t stop them from putting on their show for fellow prisoners before they were separated and sent to two different camps. Thanks in part to a campaign to free them conducted by British and American actors and comedians, they were released after five and a half years. Par Par Lay, aka “Brother Number One,” also took part in the Saffron Revolution of Buddhist monks in 2007; he was imprisoned but this time only for a month.
If Lu Maw escaped labor camp it was because he was not at the fateful 1996 performance. With the other two gone, he had to perform alone. He got around the ban on performing by staging the show in his own home. To draw foreigners, he taught himself English and had little placards made that said “KGB” or “Stasi” or “CIA” that he could hold up when referring to the Burmese equivalent so that his audience would understand.
There’s nevertheless quite a bit about the show – the dance routines, Lu Maw’s English -- that escapes foreign audience members. The other two and their wives do not speak on stage. Around 9 P.M. there’s a power outage, apparently routine, so there are battery-run Chinese LED lights on hand to light the stage that Lu Maw’s one-year-old grandson periodically crawls across. These amateurish touches appeal to audiences. They keep coming, mostly out of admiration for the courage and staying power of the men. "There could be a raid at any moment," Lu Maw warns spectators: four Germans, two Britons and a Frenchman. "Then you’d be in for it too, because it’s illegal to be here. But don’t worry: the government likes tourists -- it needs your dollars."
Despite the loosening up of censorship, putting on the show is still a risky business. When the performance is over, Lu Maw explains: "We have a neighborhood watch on the look-out every evening for suspicious-looking people. They warn us of danger so we could make our escape out the back door.” However, there has yet to be any need of this: performing for foreigners offers a kind of protection. Headlines such as "Myanmar: American Tourists Arrested in Cabaret" would be uncomfortable even for the unscrupulous regime.
So the Moustache Brothers make the best of it, and encourage the audience to speak out: "We need you to tell the world what’s going on here,” Lu Maw announces over the defective microphone. He then calls on President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to send the CIA to Myanmar. "Do an Arab Spring here! We don’t have oil, but we have plenty of opium and prostitutes!”
But aren’t they facing another danger? The next elections in 2015 could mean a win for Aung San Suu Kyi – and democracy. Wouldn’t their show then lose its purpose? "It will all happen very slowly,” says a now serious Lu Maw. "But whatever way the elections go, we observe and criticize all governments -- democratic ones too."