Franz Kafka Meets Lenny Bruce

In Mandalay,
Franz Kafka Meets Lenny Bruce


The dramatic images of Buddhist monks fearlessly marching in pro-democracy demonstrations in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma), in September held the world’s attention for a few days, only to fade away. Dozens of protesters died and thousands of monks and peaceful protesters were imprisoned, many dying in custody from torture or lack of medical attention.

In Myanmar, the ruling generals’ junta has held power since 1962, making it one of the longest-running, most brutal totalitarian regimes in the world, willing to shoot down or imprison anyone who stands up for basic human rights or democracy. Its notorious prison system holds an estimated 2,000 political prisoners. During the most recent roundups and arrests, two of the country’s most famous comedians were arrested and imprisoned.

Zarganar, 45, (“Tweezers” in Burmese), known as the country’s “Charlie Chaplin,” was arrested in Yangon on September 26, following his high-profile support of the monks, offering them food and water during their long marches through the city. He had been imprisoned twice before for his jokes.

Another comedian, Par Par Lay, 62, considered a national treasure as the leader of The Moustache Brothers comedy troupe, was arrested on September 25 in Mandalay as he was giving alms to monks at a monastery.

When the news of Par Par Lay’s arrest spread among his friends, I could see his soft, observant eyes and gentle smile that belie a proud, fearless spirit. In the early 1990s, the junta had sentenced him to six years in prison –– for telling jokes about the generals. This time, he didn’t even get to tell a joke.

* * * * *

Early one night last summer, my taxi bounced along a deeply rutted dirt road passing a line of oily repair shops and street-table restaurants lit by flickering candles. A writer friend had told me The Moustache Brothers were the most memorable people he had met in Myanmar. During Par Par Lay’s first imprisonment, he became a cause celebre around the world. Later, the guidebooks virtually institutionalized the embattled comedy troupe, using words like “Lenny Bruce,” “The Marx Brothers” and “vaudeville.”

Believe me, it’s Kafka and surrealism in spades.

The Moustache Brothers, three plastic-faced comedians — Par Par Lay, Lu Zaw and Lu Maw — and their band of family members and friends have spread laughter across Myanmar for decades. But, in this bizarre, benighted land, if the joke’s about the generals, laughter can be dangerous. The price to be paid can be hard labor crushing rocks in a labor camp where people die from overwork and malnutrition. Par Par and Lu Zaw each served six years as political prisoners, including hard labor and solitary confinement.

But if you’re lucky — like Par Par and Lu Zaw — you survive imprisonment. Even so, the generals had a final punishment to mete out. The entire comedy troupe was blacklisted, preventing them from performing in public. But, in the tradition of “the show must go on,” they said, “Ok, we’ll perform in our home,” where they’ve put on small, one-of-a-kind nightly performances now for five years, usually before an audience of five or six foreigners who have the will to search out their home in an out-of-the-way neighborhood on the edge of town.

For all practical purposes — as entertainers — the troupe has been put under house arrest, a fate not unlike the leader of the National League For Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under official house arrest for 11 of the past 18 years in Yangon. Their respective plights show that both politicians and comedians can share the same fate in a country where words and freedom of movement are deemed to be as powerful as weapons –– and as feared.

Enter Kafka. The Moustache Brothers, on this summer’s night, had lined up nine red plastic chairs in front of their living-room stage. Lu Maw (Par Par Lay’s brother), the fast-talking front man, strolled outside to shake hands with two young, law students from the U.S. Lu Maw’s ribs were exposed — taunt skin and bones — just like the emaciated images of fasting saints or living Buddhas.

So, what exactly do comedians have to do to be thrown into jail as political prisoners in Myanmar?

Picture this. On Jan. 4, 1996, Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were invited to perform at a special event before thousands of political activists at Su Kyi’s home in Yangon.

“We couldn’t all go to perform, so we drew lots,” said Lu Maw, who peppers his speech with slang phrases, such as, “You get my drift?” and “Are you with me?”

“I shoot from the hip,” said Lu Maw, with the emphasis on hip –– quick, cool, intelligent.

“We knew that if Par Par said what he felt, we would be in trouble, but the show was important. All of the National League for Democracy officials would be there. We decided to go all the way, you know what I mean?

“We had a plan, if you get my drift. Maybe they arrest us, maybe not. If they do, OK. It was our big chance to speak out before the people, despite the controversy and threats.”

Par Par, now 61, is the best-known member of the troupe. A movie star early in his career, he’s still a heartthrob for the ladies. Even on the tiny living-room stage he exuded a wry, debonair air, pure charm — the spirit of a Maurice Chevalier or Cantinflas —an aura shared by great comedians who can hold an audience anywhere in the world.

What were Par Par’s and Lu Zaw’s prison-caliber jokes? Have you heard the one about the thief?

In the show, with Suu Kyi in the audience, Par Par deadpanned, “In the old days, we called a thief a thief. But now, we call them junta members…”

At another point, Par Par portrayed an activist who is shot by a general, but the activist refuses to die. The joke hinged on the wordplay in the Burmese language, involving the words “hit” and “right,” which sound alike.

“You’ve been hit, die,” orders the general (Lu Zaw).

Par Par asked innocently, “Why should I die if I am right?”

One of the biggest laughs came when Par Par pantomimed the hand movements of various ethnic dances.

Then he said, “Now, here’s how a government official dances.” His body movements suddenly morphed into a man in fear of being seen. Surreptitiously, he slinked around picking pockets, taking bribes and stuffing away money — all to the howls and applause of the audience. A video cuts to Su Kyi’s face as she dissolves into convulsive laughter.

“After that we were dead meat,” said Lu Maw. “Tit for tat.”

A few days later, members of Military Intelligence Unit 16 (“Like the KGB,” said Lu Maw) burst into their home at 2 a.m. and dragged Par Par and Lu Zaw from their beds. Par Par was interrogated and tortured.
“They demanded he tell them, ‘Were the jokes your idea? Who told you to tell those jokes?’ They made our jokes a political charge under Section V of the Emergency Provisions Act. After that, Par Par was up the river,” said Lu Maw.

Par Par and Lu Zaw were sentenced in a secret trial. They served two months of hard labor, shackled in leg chains, breaking rocks with pick-axes at Kyein Kran Ka Prison in Kachin State in northern Myanmar. Later, they served six months in solitary confinement and were then transferred to separate prisons. Prisoners died almost every day from overwork, starvation, malaria or lack of medical treatment, said Par Par.

“But they were strong,” said his brother, Lu Maw. “Their hearts and spirit were not broken. As soon as Par Par arrived in prison, all the prisoners wanted him to tell jokes, to make them laugh. They never gave up when they were in the clink.”

Lu Maw and the remaining troupe members banded together at their home in Mandalay and started performing. On July 13, 2001, the two were freed with a warning they would be in bigger trouble if they were ever arrested again.

“I told them,” said Par Par. “You cannot close my mouth, ears and eyes. If you want to do that, it is better you don’t release me.” When people throughout Myanmar see Par Par or Lu Zaw today in a public place, they often break out in spontaneous applause.

The performance I saw in their home was intimate, inspiring, high-art guerilla theater, enriched by genuine smiles and a resilient joie de vivre. They were enjoying themselves, offering pure, personal Art in the midst of tragedy. A few neighborhood children watched from outside the edge of the living room’s light, enthralled by the music, the colorful costumes and dancing, and Lu Maw speaking in English to foreigners who laughed loudly. Lu Maw, holding a large 1940s-era hand microphone, unleashed a rap-like tale about the troupe’s political troubles, punctuated with whimsical asides on ordinary life in Myanmar. “We can’t afford gas, but we can’t afford a car either.”

One joke, near the end of the evening, sent a cold shiver through the foreigners. Talking about the notorious secret police, Lu Maw deadpanned, “But we’re not afraid. No, if the secret police run through the door right now (voice rising: ‘Are they here now?’), we’ll run out the back door fast –– and the police will arrest the tourists!”

The finale of every show is a picture-taking session with the foreigners. Painted signs are held at chest level, with messages such as “KGB,” “Moustache Brothers are under surveillance,” “CIA,” and “Rogues Gallery.”

In the audience were three tourists from Britain, Australia and Japan. “I don’t want a picture in my camera that shows I was here,” said the Australian. “Why risk it?”

Revved up after the picture-taking session, Lu Maw, sweating and smiling, wiped his face with his headband.

“Our father and grandfather were comedians,” he said. “My 80-year-old father is proud. Our family is together again. We have no regrets — that’s the way the ball bounces.

“Foreign travelers have kept our family and our art alive,” said Lu Maw. “Tourists are our Trojan horse. Without them, we’d be up the river. We need tourists and journalists to see our show and talk about us. We’re living on the edge. Are you with me?”

A few minutes later, the tourists walked out to the street where they waited in pitch-black darkness. Two beat-up taxis cranked up their engines, the headlights barely lit, to take them to hotels. They drove off into the night. Mandalay, a city with a million people, has few streetlights. But the darkness that night had an upside. In Mandalay, I saw stars on a cloudless night, if you know what I mean.


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