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Burma: Moustache Brothers keep on telling jokes

Moustache Brothers

The Moustache Brothers comedy trio paid a heavy price for poking fun at Burma's military junta. Now, despite moves towards a civilian government, they have no plans to stop lampooning the authorities.

"All I did was crack some jokes. But for that, I was sentenced to hard labour," says Par Par Lay. "I didn't revolt against the government but I was charged with a political crime."

At 64, he is the eldest of the Moustache Brothers - two brothers and a cousin whose music and comedy act is something of an institution in Burma's second biggest city, Mandalay.

They perform to small audiences of foreign tourists in the empty shop space on the ground floor of their home.

The slapstick of their show and the long, droopy moustaches belie their experiences at the hands of Burma's former military government.

"The situation in jail there was really terrible. I was handcuffed and shackled, and I had to break rocks. There was never enough food to eat and if the guards didn't like a prisoner, they would shoot them dead. I saw that happen with my own eyes. I'm still feeling bitter about it."

Par Par Lay and his clean-shaven cousin, 60-year-old Lu Zaw, were sent to prison after they performed outside the house of Burma's most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi and made the military government the butt of some jokes.

Par Par Lay's brother, 62-year-old Lu Maw, avoided prison, apparently after they drew lots to decide who would actually deliver the controversial jokes.

That was in 1996. They came out of prison in 2003 and then seven years later, Aung San Suu Kyi herself was released from house arrest by Burma's new, nominally civilian government.

Image caption Moustache Brothers are restricted to performing in a makeshift theatre in their home

And it's against this backdrop that the three men - together with several other family members - take to their improvised stage each night.

They still aren't allowed to perform in public places without permission from the government, which they have not been granted so far.

The show itself is geared towards tourists. It is part-politics, part-history lesson, together with a demonstration of traditional dance and a bit of clowning around thrown in. The rest of the show is made up of singing, some music on a scratchy cassette tape, and a few old video clips of Hollywood stars campaigning for their freedom.

Their shows certainly provide a steady income. At this time of year - peak tourist season - all the seats are full. At $10 (£6) each, the group can make up to $300 (£186) a night now.

"'Easy money! You are sitting ducks!" jokes Lu Maw, the only member of the troupe who speaks English.

Some of the jokes hit the mark but it's an uneven performance and a few members of the mainly French and German audience look utterly bemused.

The Moustache Brothers say their comedy is still relevant in a Burma that is making the transition to civilian rule. Most, but not all, political prisoners have been released from jail, censorship's been lifted, protests are allowed, and even President Obama has visited the country.

So has all that taken the sting out of the brothers' act? Isn't it time they updated their show?

Lu Maw compares the military government's move toward civilian rule to a snake shedding its skin - in the end it's still a snake.

As evidence, he points to the fact the troupe is restricted to where it can perform. Because of that the show has not changed and, he says, many basic issues facing the people still have not been addressed.

"Education is not free. Lights go off and on. In hospitals there is no medicine. Many die of HIV, the government says nothing. Everyone is corrupt - on the take!''

Although they cannot perform outside their home, the brothers are well-known in Burma as dissidents and local media speak to them regularly for their views on the reforms. And they haven't given up politics.

Par Par Lay says although there is more freedom in general, in the countryside people still live in fear. He says he travels to remote districts and tells people not to be afraid.

"We will keep on campaigning until Aung San Suu Kyi becomes president. We believe she must win."

In the meantime, there's no plan for the Moustache Brothers to retire.

"Comedy runs in our family. My grandfather and my father were both comedians," says Par Par Lay. "I like to crack jokes and want to see people smile and be happy. I'm 64 years old now, but I always feel young when I'm cracking jokes."

The Moustache Brothers were interviewed by Newshour on the BBC World Service.