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COLUMN ONE

Laughter from behind the gag

A Myanmar comedy troupe, silenced for its politics, carries on in private. 'Joking shares the suffering,' one says.

March 04, 2008|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

Par Par Lay, 60, learned comedy from his father, who picked it up from his own father. Par Par Lay started out professionally in the mid-1960s and soon headed a traveling road show of three comedians, 10 female dancers, eight musicians and five roadies.

His first arrest was in 1990, when he performed at Suu Kyi's birthday party. In a comedy bit about farmers' hats, Par Par Lay boasted, "My hat is so large it protects all of Myanmar."

Since Suu Kyi's party symbol was a star-topped hat, the crack could be seen as a subtle jab at the junta, delivered in the tradition of a-nyient. The audience got it, but so did the generals, who weren't amused. They threw Par Par Lay in a Mandalay jail for six months.

In 1996, Par Par Lay and his youngest brother, Lu Zaw, 56, went to Suu Kyi's house in Yangon to entertain at an Independence Day party attended by some 2,000 people, including the American and British ambassadors.

Lu Maw stayed at home, ready to shoot his mouth off if his brothers landed in the hoosegow. Knowing their script for the two-hour show, that was an easy call.

The comedians took aim at the country's corrupt education system, mocking teachers for idly reading magazines, knitting or skipping class altogether in the daytime and then charging their students for night classes at the teachers' homes.

As junta spies listened in, Par Par Lay dug a deeper hole with jokes about constant power shortages, money problems and desperate women turning to prostitution, only to spread HIV and AIDS.

The two brothers and their troupe returned to Mandalay on the next morning's train. That night, around midnight, government agents knocked at the door, rousted Lu Zaw, Par Par Lay and his wife, Win Mar, a dancer in the group, and hauled them off to the city's military intelligence headquarters. There they joined the troupe's other dancers, musicians and roadies.

Interrogators ordered them to sit straight in chairs, with their feet off the ground, and then stood behind the prisoners to pepper them with questions. If they weren't satisfied with the answers, the agents beat the entertainers' ears or forced them to do 500 squat-ups at a time, according to Lu Maw.

"It was like torture," he said.

After two weeks of interrogation, everyone was released except the comedians, who were put on trial under an emergency law the generals had enacted when they seized power in 1962. The two Moustache Brothers were convicted and sentenced to seven years' hard labor, deep in the jungle.

Hooded, with their hands cuffed to their seats, they were transported by train, the first political prisoners to be thrown in with hardened criminals such as murderers and drug dealers at the Kyein Kran Ka labor camp, said Lu Maw.

The comedians say they spent their days shackled in chain gangs, pounding sledgehammers against huge rocks to make gravel for roads, which are often built by forced labor in Myanmar. Razor-sharp stone chips sliced their skin.

News of their imprisonment spread, and Hollywood stars including Rob Reiner, Ted Danson and Bill Maher added their signatures to a 1.6-million-name petition, 18 feet long, which demanded the release of Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw.

While behind bars, the brothers kept sharpening their act, performing for their fellow convicts.

The generals moved the comedians to separate prisons after two months' hard labor and freed them July 13, 2001.

Par Par Lay's wife says she didn't recognize the thin, wasted man that hard time had made of her husband. " 'He had no hair -- and no moustache,' " Lu Maw quoted her as saying, laughing at the thought.

"They are very tough, good comedians. They never gave up -- never.

"We're still not afraid," he added. "We're comedians. This is our job!"

--

paul.watson@latimes.com

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