There’s something rather seductive about genuinely rebellious individuals. Those who march to the beat of their own drum and refuse to do what they are told, in order to make a stance and shake up an authoritative regime, can make the most interesting and refreshing of characters.
During my visit to the last royal city of Myanmar (Mandalay), I met three gentlemen famous for giving a cheeky middle finger with verifiable valour, the controversial comedian trio known as; ‘The Moustache Brothers.’
If you’re reading this from The Western World, I’m guessing that it’s pretty commonplace for famous comedians in your country to poke fun out of the current government?
British comics have been known to make a living, forging a successful career out of political piss-taking with satirical shows and countless stand-up comic free for all, where no one is safe – not even the Queen (my Thai friends have a hard time wrapping their heads around that privilege!).
No biggie, right?
Imagine that your country is led by a brutal military regime. Envisage your people getting beaten (or even killed) on the streets for protests merely requesting a fair voting system. Try to conceptualise the likes of Ricky Gervais getting locked up for several years, for just cracking a few jokes about the antics of your current government.
Would you dare to speak out then?
Who Are The Moustache Brothers?
Well, it doesn’t seem to deter the Moustache Brothers of Mandalay. Par Par Lay, Lu Maw and Lu Zaw (a cousin by blood) belong to a family of 3rd generation comedians, they used to constantly tour their political satire show around the country until they were blacklisted for performing due to the ruffling of the regime’s feathers.
Around that time, the people of Myanmar began (one of the many) uprising against the military government in a request for a fair democratic system and an end to all of the bullshit that their people had suffered for too many years.
The Moustache Brothers’ role was to keep the spirits up of the oppressed Burmese folk, whilst informing them of current affairs via the art of humour. They became a national phenomenon very fast and their jokes became a big part of the galvanising revolt in Myanmar (more on that later).
The uprising irked the government and they responded the only way they knew how; by shutting up those who speak out.
Two of the brothers, Par Par Lay and Lu Maw were taken away and chained together by their ankles for the sentence of seven years of solid manual labour. They knew they were going to be arrested beforehand, yet they did not run and it’s alleged that as the police dragged them away into the unknown, they saved their best jokes for their oppressors.
They were chained together in jail every night, by day enduring hard manual labour breaking rocks at the Chinese border, humiliated and starved daily, separated from their loved ones. Banished from performing their show around the country, stripped of their dignity and freedom of speech, some of their best friends still remain unfairly locked away in solitary confinement.
Comedians Bill Maher and Rob Reiner wrote letters to the Myanmar government in protest and support of their release. A fair chunk of actors and comics got involved and the international pressure resulted in the brothers being removed from the labour camp, but still placed under house arrest for the remaining two years.
Are The Moustache Brothers of Myanmar Still Alive?
The public pressure from western comics was not completely in vain, with the brothers being released from the labour camp 2 years early, however, the damage had already been done. Par Par Lay, considered the leader of the moustache brothers died at 67-years-old to kidney disease, his family claimed his condition was a result of the contaminated water he had to drink in prison.
I had the pleasure of meeting all the brothers, Par Par died roughly a year after meeting him during my Myanmar itinerary. It was incredibly sad to hear of this early passing, but his two brothers carried on their legacy performing now as a duo.
I first visited Myanmar during a really exciting time, when the country had just opened up for travel after a 50 years hiatus, I simply had to meet these loveable renegades.
And so I did.
This is my experience of meeting the legendary ‘Moustache Brothers’ of Mandalay.
Tickets To See The Moustache Brothers in Mandalay
The show starts at 8:30 pm every night, (you can grab a motorbike taxi) and drive to 39th Street, 80/81. I bought my $10 ticket at the door from the late member of the Moustache Brothers himself, Par Par.
I’d been reading about them for a while and was pretty chuffed to be shaking the man’s hand, but he seemed to care more about me and my life, asking me questions with heartfelt energy.
I wondered what goes through the mind of a man who had been imprisoned for seven years on these grounds? A guy who decided to continue such a revolt only days after his release? A man whose eyes told a thousand stories. Somehow I didn’t think my recent first world problem of “the wrong pants came back to me in the laundry today” was going to cut it.
When he found out I was British, he mischievously accused me of being an MI5 member. I laughed and told him I can’t confirm nor deny, then took my seat in the small audience of nine. The show started with the brothers handing out laminated newspaper clippings by resources such as ‘The Times’- all recognising the legend of the Moustache Brothers and highlighting them for the lovable rebels that they are.
The first 10-15 minutes are really informative – the historical part and “how we got here” was my favourite ingredient of a very enjoyable hour.
“Same guys different suits” was the main mantra as he explained how the ‘new’ government really aren’t so new at all (which turned out to be very accurate, sadly).
The 3rd brother, Lu Zaw was unwell and helped out in the background, but did not get involved with the comedy.
Moustache Brothers’ Jokes
The only joke of the night that made me genuinely laugh was “please don’t steal when you’re in Myanmar; as the government doesn’t like the competition.”
Some good old husband vs wife banter was thrown in for good measure (from both sides) and Lu shared his conspiracy theory that NATO won’t help out the people because of the lack of oil resources in Burma. He then followed on that the joke is on them because they could make money from Myanmar’s natural resources of heroin and prostitutes if they were savvy enough.
That joke bombed.
I was more than happy to narrate from chosen books, as (I believe) the only English native speaker in the audience, when requested to by the brothers.
To add even more spice to their act, the government are aware that the show still goes on and regularly visit and video the performances as a scare tactic. The brothers treat these nights like any other and make a special effort to “welcome the KGB” to their members of the audience!
The brass balls on these guys.
The night finished with some local dancing from female members of the family. The brothers joined in and I think some attempts of humour were made, they just didn’t land too well and it was maybe lost in translation, or maybe it was parts of Burmese culture that we didn’t understand?
Summary of Visiting The Moustache Brothers (+ Myanmar Update)
Before you move on to my summary, I have to state the obvious, or maybe it’s not for those not in the know. I live in Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand, right by the Myanmar border. Many Myanmar natives flock here, braving the harsh jungles of their country to leave Myanmar.
Once they have been granted asylum they live a life of citizenship purgatory thanks to a complex application system. This is infinitely better than staying in Myanmar, which was still referred to as Burma at the time I first visited.
There was a newfound feeling of hope in the air for a lot of people who felt that the tide of oppression was taking a positive turn, but 10 years after the country has fell back into despair, anti-democracy and shady people are back to treating some citizens like trash.
Everything still stands below, with regards to what I say about the moustache brothers. However, with the death of the brothers’ patriarch, the corrupt regime ruling the roost and the global pandemic; I dread to think what the state of affairs are really like over there right now.
I’d give the whole experience of The Moustache Brothers a 7/10. The show starts with a lot of positive energy and humour, but kind of loses its way with all of the random dancing and slapstick humour at the end. I’m really not a big fan of that type of comedy, I enjoyed the occasional satirical slap to the bad guys at the helm of the nation, but that was just a couple of chuckles.
Just manage your expectations, you’re not seeing Bill Burr or Dave Chappelle at a sold out Maddison Square Gardens. This is a couple of fellas trying their best to make a living, in a country that has always tried to strangle their spirit, and now they are a man down.
For me, it wasn’t about the comedy show. It was getting to meet some very interesting and inspiring characters who I’d been reading a lot about and they turned out to be lovely people too.
In a country where you just do as you’re told and ask no questions – the Moustache Brothers do the opposite. They reaffirmed this by telling us; “they (the government) want us to stop but we don’t care. We’re going to carry on because there is always hope for Burma.”
The situation in Myanmar right now has gone from bad to quite frankly, hell on earth.
Torture, silencing and mass murder of Burmese civilians (including pregnant women and children) are happening right now as we speak and are a harrowing reality of day to day living for the people of Myanmar.
Due to the current war in Ukraine and the global pandemic, the Western media are barely covering the atrocities that are taking place, so you can be forgiven for being ignorant about it. This has emboldened the scumbag militia to hide their sins in plain sight.
This article from Amnesty International should keep you up to speed on everything you need to know about human rights in Myanmar.
The government have been known to hijack aid coming into the country. I live close to the Myanmar border and have teamed up with a trustworthy local refugee who has contacts for getting essentials such as food, medicine, baby food formula and feminine hygiene products to the people who need them the most.
Donations are welcome (to say the least) via Wise transfer, if you are interested in helping out – please shoot me a message on my contact form.