Visiting the Moustache Brothers of Mandalay
I’ve always been fascinated by 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 change or a stance, make the most interesting characters. When visiting the last royal city of Burma (Mandalay), you’ll soon find out that no one shows a cheeky middle finger with such class and valour as the controversial comedians; ‘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? English comics have been known to make a living, forging a successful career out of political piss-taking with satire shows such as ‘Spitting Image.’ No biggie, right?
Imagine that your country is the second most corrupt country in the world, lead by a brutal military regime. Envisage your people getting beaten (or even killed) on the streets for peaceful protests merely requesting a fair voting system. Imagine the likes of Ricky Gervais getting locked up for several years, for just cracking a few jokes about the current organisation. Would you speak out then?
Well it doesn’t seem to deter the Moustache Brothers of Mandalay! Par Par Lay, Lu Zaw and Lu Maw belong to a family of 3rd generation comedians and they used to constantly tour their political satire show around the country – until they were blacklisted for performing. Spearheaded by Aung Sang Su Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, the Burmese people began an 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 positive energy revolt in Burma.
The uprising shook the shackles of the government and they responded the only way they knew – 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 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!
Comedians Bill Maher and Rob Reiner wrote letters to the Burmese government in protest and support of their release – but it was all in vain.
Seven years of manual labour – chained together, humiliated daily and separated from their loved ones. Banished from performing their show around the country and some of their best friends still remain unfairly locked away in solitary confinement. Yet they still persist with their comic show. Every. Single. Night.
I simply had to meet these crazies – and so I did. This is my experience of meeting the legendary ‘Moustache Brothers’ of 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 one of the Moustache Brothers himself, Par Par. I’ve been reading about them for a while and was pretty star-struck when he shook my hand, but he seemed to care more about me and my life. How could I live up to a man who had been imprisoned for seven years? 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 English, he mischievously accused me of being an MI5 member. I laughed and took my seat in the small audience of nine. The show started with the brother’s 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.
I nodded gently, as Lu caught the audience up to speed about their story, trying my hardest not to reveal myself as the excited groupie that I hid under my calm demeanour. For the record; I was as cool as a cucumber and no knickers were thrown at him.
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 mantra as he explained how the ‘new’ government really aren’t new at all.
Humour and Controversy
My favourite joke of the night was “please don’t steal when you’re in Burma – the government doesn’t like the competition.”
Some good old husband vs wife banter was thrown in for good measure 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 Burma’s natural resources of heroine and prostitutes if they were savvy enough.
I was more than happy to narrate from chosen books, as the only Englishman in the audience – when requested to by the brothers.
To add even more spice – the government are aware that the show still goes on and regularly visit and video the performances as a scare tactic. The brother’s treat these nights like any other and make a special effort to “welcome the KGB” to their members of audience! Superstars!
The second half of the show was my least favourite, as girls came out of the back in creepy makeup and showed us different dance moves from other tribes in Burma and Thailand. I didn’t really get it and they may haunt my dreams.
I’d give the whole experience of The Moustache Brothers a 8/10. The show starts with a lot of positive energy and humour, but kind of loses it way with all of the random dancing and slapstick humour at the end. For me it wasn’t about the show. It was getting to meet some very interesting characters who I’d been reading a lot about.
In a country where you just do as you’re told and ask no questions – the Moustache Brothers do the opposite. Not to be awkward; but to make a change. 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.”
Song for the Moustache Brothers: Rage against the Machine – Testify.
“F**k you; I won’t do what you tell me!