Monday, March 26, 2007

Myanmar: Mandalay: 30 January 2007 (Written 14 March 2007)

Opening my drowsy eyes, my body and mind said, just go back to sleep, you don’t have to get up, there’s no need. But I had already decided, long before, that I wanted to go see the Moustache Brothers perform.

I walked through the twilight streets, busy with a final burst of energy before closing for the night, to dine at the chapatti stand again. Although I had only been there once before, many staff smiled in recognition and asked where my friends were. I lingered, watching young couples sharing generous meals, old men drinking tea while speaking with very thoughtful expressions, longyis carefully tucked under them so they wouldn't touch the ground or be indecent.

I joined a trishaw driver who was painfully thin but had a brilliant white smile, and we glided through the roads, as he pointed out good restaurants, pagodas and monasteries, and said to me “Life in Myanmar no good. Moustache Brothers good. Life hard. Life difficult.”

I was very early when I arrived at the small, dark building where the famous brothers live. The Moustache Brothers are an A-Nyeint troupe, traditional Burmese theater. A-Nyeint uses a combination of comedy, dancing, puppets and intricately crafted marionettes to provide all-night entertainment at festivals, weddings, and any other parties that may happen in Myanmar. In addition, A-Nyeint troupes are traditionally forums for political comic critiques, where performers can make fun of governments, politicians, and the problems of society. The Moustache Brothers are Lu Maw, Lu Zaw, and Par Par Lay. They were well-respected and loved for decades throughout Myanmar. In 1995, Lu Zaw and Par Par Lay attended a festival in Yangon at Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, and despite knowing the possible consequences of criticizing the government, they performed in front of a crowd of thousands and ridiculed, mocked, and criticized to their hearts’ content. Aung San Suu Kyi wrote about this event in Letters from Burma and comments how their spirits remained high before returning to Mandalay even though they knew they would probably be put in jail.

And this is indeed what happened. And rather than going to jail, they were sent deep into the jungles of Northern Burma to work alongside hardened criminals, building roads whilst being chained down. Thanks to international pressure from human rights groups such as Amnesty International, as well as well-known comedians such as Bill Maher, Par Par Lay’s sentence was reduced to 5 years instead of the 7 he was assigned, but Lu Zaw was indeed kept until 2001. Lu Zaw was maimed during his sentence and will never recover fully from his injuries.

I had come early because I knew that the small performance room would fill with tourists, and I knew that we could stay and chat after, but I wanted to, if possible, have a bit of time with the performers alone, before the people arrived. The show is every night at 8.30pm, and I had arrived just after 7pm. Lu Maw, the brother who wasn’t imprisoned, and the one that speaks the best English since he has had the most interaction due to the fact that he was receiving a lot of foreign visitors when his relatives were held captive, indeed has a large moustache and a giant smile. His whole body shakes when he laughs, and although he is aging, his eyes remain young and jovial. He welcomed me, offered me tea and a cigar, and showed me stacks of international magazines in which articles about the Moustache Brothers have been published, as well as a photo album full of pictures from when Aung San Suu Kyi visited their house in 2002 during a brief period of time when she was not under house arrest.

He left me, but returned a few minutes later carrying a magazine of his own, and asked with not a glimmer of hesitation, “Clive Owen. Is it clee-vay or clai-vee?” I answered with the correct pronunciation and he clapped his hands in delight. Realizing that I didn't mind answering his questions, he asked how to pronounce strategy, maneuver, red herring, and the correct usage of several idioms. As we were discussing and repeating words and phrases, a man entered the room and came to shake my hand. For every bit that Lu Maw was smiling, energetic, and enthusiastic, this man seemed depressed, disturbed, and somehow haunted. He was Lu Zaw. I am not sure if this was due to any particular circumstance, whether he was not feeling well that day or something was on his mind, but I had a deeply unsettling feeling with him.

I continued chatting with Lu Maw, and I was glad for the opportunity to ask very directly some of the millions of questions that had been firing inside my mind for days. He told me that the military used to attend every night, watching the performers and audience, but now it was ok. He explained a bit of the history of Myanmar, which I luckily knew most of, but he elaborated about the crisis in 1987, when the government devalued all the currency overnight and printed new money in different denominations, declaring that all paper money was now worthless. This event led to a huge number of changes within Burma, of which I believe two are most noteworthy.

The first was that out of the sheer desperation of literally having no money, many young women ran away to Thailand to work as prostitutes. Either having earned enough to come back or kicked out of Thailand for having diseases, many of these women returned to Myanmar with HIV. Under the current regime, HIV is not recognized as being a problem in Myanmar, and like in any situation when a growing problem is denied, there is no preventative measure being taken, and it is scary to think of how quickly this disease is spreading through the population. There are very few facilities that offer testing, and many are not even aware that they could potentially carry the virus, so there is no accurate way of knowing how many are infected at the moment.

The second was that the currency de-valuation led to widespread discontent among the population. They had already withstood over 20 years of corruption, impoverishment and unfair treatment, but for many, this was the last straw. Student groups, now with support from the sangha, the religious schools, as well as older people, began to organize with unprecedented fervor, and this culminated in the countrywide protests which took place on 8 August 1988. It was after this attempted revolution was crushed that the military, even more than before, persecuted those that spoke out in any way against the regime.

By this point, other guests were filing in. Some were clearly backpackers, dressed in outdoors gear and hiking boots, while others were at the other end of the scale, high heels, jewelry, and perfume. A mostly European crowd settled into the bright red and blue plastic chairs that were arranged around the small stage with the lonely microphone held together by duct tape.

The show began, and we watched an hour of dancing in many different costumes, listened to Lu Maw make jokes about how the tsunami didn’t have to do any damage to Myanmar because the government had already done more damage than even the tsunami could do, and watched a video clip of the film about a boy with Hugh Grant, where a reference to Par Par Lay’s imprisonment is made.

Lu Maw’s wife, who he repeatedly informed us had been the cover girl for Lonely Planet Myanmar in 1996 in Italian, showed us dance moves from a book and despite her age, she moved with such agility and flexibility that none were left unimpressed. Par Par Lay’s impersonations of dances from different countries, such as Thailand, China, and India, finishing with the Burmese government dance, in which he was dressed as a thief and tried to take my camera just as I was about to take his picture, was greeted with much laughter.

At the culmination of the show, they sold DVD’s of their show, T-shirts, and hand-crafted marionettes and the flock of tourists gathered around. I chatted briefly with Lu Maw and his daughter, and rode on the same trishaw back to my hotel.

Some members of the audience had difficulty understanding Lu Maw’s heavily accented English, while others continuously laughed for the whole show. I was somewhere in between; I enjoyed some of the jokes, but I came away with a deep sense of unease. There was something in the aura of Lu Zaw that made me feel disturbed; watching the wives and siblings of the Moustache Brothers performing alongside them, aging performers with no other chance to make money, I was thoroughly confused by the whole spectacle. Why does the government allow this to happen? Lu Maw told me that he thought it was because tourists bring money, the government wants to keep tourists happy, so they don’t bother them. I agreed, but I somehow felt like maybe by allowing this one tiny voice of dissent to persist, the government could keep all tourists going just to this one venue in Mandalay and not encourage other dissidents around the country. And I felt disgust and pity for the situation that this family was placed in, having to perform the same show night after night for rich foreigners, many of whom don’t know who ASSK is, or what the real living conditions in Myanmar are.

There is no doubt though, that I have a deep respect for these people who voiced their true opinions and beliefs in the face of a brutal regime, knowing what the consequences would be, and even after suffering for years, continuing to speak out. Maybe their small voices are drowned out, and the precious few who do see the show may go back to the countries they are from and forget these moustached men before long, but they are still continuing their life’s work, and for this they deserve admiration and support.

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