Thu, Sep 07, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Feature: Myanmar's crackdown on comedians is no joke

LAUGH IT OUT The ruling junta's ban on dissent has landed some comedians in hot water, and forced them to turn to foreigners to help expose their hardships


There isn't much to laugh about in Myanmar these days. Ask some of its most famous comedians.

In 1996, brothers Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw, two of the Moustache Brothers, a trio known for its jokes about the omnipresent secret service, were sentenced to five years of jail and hard labor after making fun of the country's ruling generals during a rally at the home of democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Their crime? "Spreading false news."

A campaign subsequently launched by Amnesty International helped win the release in 2001 of the aging performers and secured government approval to resume performing. Only there was one caveat: They were effectively barred from performing in the Myanmar language, which meant that the majority of their audience would have to be tourists.

Others have not been that lucky, however.

Mg Myit Tar, a comedian and singer, was banned from performing after making a crack on state television about the country's frequently shut-down university system.

While hosting a music show on state-run television, he interviewed a girl singer of high school age and congratulated her for finishing her education -- a pointed reference to the regime's frequent closures of universities.

Meanwhile, one comedian who made off-color jokes about the generals -- and who shared a name with the junta leader -- was blocked from working after she refused to change her name.

"Most of the jokes in our country satirize the government and its corrupt system," said Maung Thura, a stand-up comic barred from the stage since May for giving an interview on the BBC, in which he criticized the regime's rules on Thangya -- performances that traditionally poke fun at society and politics.

Myanmar's brand of humor would seem innocuous in most societies, like a joke now making the rounds that Thura told about a discussion between an Englishman, an American and a man from Myanmar.

"Our man who had no legs could climb Mount Everest," brags the Englishman, to which the American replies, ``Our man sailed across the Pacific with no hands."

"That's nothing," the Burmese then chimes in. "Our country has been ruled for 18 years by a group of men who have no heads."

Such cracks are enough to land comedians among Myanmar's more than 1,100 political prisoners, according to the US-based Human Rights Watch.

The organization says the ruling junta "continues to ban virtually all opposition political activity and to persecute democracy and human rights activists."

Although the regime denies human rights violations, the crackdown on comedians is part of a larger government effort that seemingly scrutinizes everything from obituaries to cartoons for any hint of dissent -- and imposes harsh punishments on supposed offenders.

That hasn't stopped the wisecracking.

In Myanmar, quietly traded jokes run the gamut from the claim that generals' wives acted as bookies during the soccer World Cup to the observation that the daily power cuts only give teenagers greater opportunity for hanky-panky in the dark.

Comedians refuse to be silenced and have now turned to foreigners to expose the abuses that are being perpetrated by the junta.

"Tourists are our Trojan horses," Lu Maw, the third partner in the Moustache Brothers, told a Western journalist last year. "Through tourists, the rest of the world can learn of our plight."

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