Par Par Lay: Comedian who satirised the Burmese regime

 

It was always likely that Par Par Lay would spend his life entertaining people and poking fun. Born into a family of traditional entertainers, at the age of 14 he followed his father on to the stage as a performer of Ah Nyeint, a Burmese vaudeville-type entertainment that mixes humour and satire with dance and music. Performers would typically tour villages, customising their patter and jokes with local references. Yet over the years his jokes become increasingly biting and political, and he directed his barbs less towards local officials and more towards the military generals who exerted an iron grip on the country.

Along with his younger brother, Lu Maw, and a cousin, Lu Zaw, Par Par Lay achieved cult status as part of the Moustache Brothers troupe, which despite pressure from the regime has for several decades entertained locals as well as foreign diplomats and tourists with their political jokes, comedy and dissent. His performances also earned him several lengthy spells in jail.

Par Par Lay rose to international attention in 1996 when he, Lu Zaw and two other performers travelled from Mandalay to Rangoon to appear at an Independence Day celebration event at opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's lakeside home. Three days later, back in Mandalay, the men were dragged from their beds in the home shared by the extended family at one in the morning and taken to the city's jail. Their relatives were not told where they were being held.

Par Par Lay was eventually sent to jail far away, to Ching Krang Hka in Kachin state, where he was ordered to break rocks with other inmates. He later revealed how the prisoners agreed to do his share of the rock-breaking if he performed for them. The men were not released for five years.

It was not the first time Par Par Lay had been jailed. In 1990 he was sentenced to six months' imprisonment by the regime of General Ne Win, when he campaigned ahead of an election and was jailed again in 2007 when he lent his support to the Saffron Revolution, the democracy uprising led by the country's monks.

Despite the threats, the Moustache Brothers never changed their jokes. In 2001, new rules prevented them performing in public without special permission. Instead they turned their home at 39th Street in the south of Mandalay into a theatre and invited foreign tourists, diplomats and others to stumble their way through dimly-lit streets and head inside for a "private performance". Astonishingly, the regime allowed this to go ahead and the Brothers even featured in the Lonely Planet travel guide.

They were always happy to be videoed and interviewed and urged foreigners to visit, despite the demands by some activists that tourists should avoid Burma. "If a tourist comes here for an hour they will know everything about Burma," they would say. The show was a family affair; as well as the three "brothers" there were musicians and wives and sisters who danced. Par Par Lay's wife danced with them.

Some of the Brothers' humour did not translate successfully into English, but lots did. Often signboards were used to highlight key words. One favourite joke – the performances could get a little stale for regular visitors – involved the Burmese man who travels to Thailand to visit a dentist. "Do you not have dentists in Burma?" the dentist asks. "Ah, yes," replies the patient. "But in Burma, we cannot open our mouths."

The British documentary-maker Rex Bloomstein, who interviewed and filmed the Brothers several years ago while posing as a tourist, said that in addition to the sense of anarchy, the shows he saw contained deep humanity. He said he considers the Brothers part of a "great spirit of opposition in Burma".

Par Par Lay was born in 1947 in a village close to the town of Shwebo in central Burma. Both his father and grandfather performed Ah Nyeint and though he attended a local school, he was destined to follow them. (Although Par Pay Lay always bore the name "Brother No 1", his English was less polished than that of Lu Maw and sometimes it appeared that he could be on the receiving end of this younger brother's sharp wit.)

Par Par Lay's apprenticeship meant that Lu Maw had to take care of many of the domestic chores at home and look after their six younger siblings since their mother was partially-sighted. As Burma opened up under the administration of President Thein Sein and political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, were released from jail, so the Brothers had even more freedom to act. In 2012, ahead of by-elections for parliament, Par Par Lay toured the country, campaigning for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party. He spoke in small towns and villages, urging people that they should have "no fear". The NLD secured 43 of the 44 seats it contested.

It was at this point that Par Par Lay began to mention to his relatives that he had a backache, choosing not to complain too much in case his family stopped his travels. With the campaign over he finally went to hospital, where X-rays revealed that he was suffering from kidney disease. During this year's traditional water festival, held in the spring, he performed from a float that drove through Mandalay but admitted he was tired and had lost weight. His condition appeared to have improved following an operation but several days before his death his health deteriorated once again.

Lu Maw and Lu Zaw will continue to perform as the Moustache Brothers without Par Par Lay, having honed a two-man show during the several periods he spent in jail. In addition to the need to make a living, the family said their act would honour Par Par Lay. The first performance without him took place four days after his funeral.

Par Par Lay, comedian and satirist: born Shwebo, Burma 1947; married Ma Win Mar; died Mandalay, Myanmar 2 August 2013.

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