Mustachio Bashio (Mandalay, Burma)

Secret Police – Fu Manchu – The performance – Sobering facts – American Democracy

There was only one thing I wanted to see in Mandalay – the Mustache Brothers Comedy Troupe.  On my second night in town I went to go see their famous nightly performance, and I am still not sure what to think about it.  But let me begin at the beginning.

As you know, the government silences all forms of opposition.  It has a secret police force called the Directorate of Defense Services that sends spies out into the public to monitor conversations.  They ride the buses, they sit at cafes and they report everything back to the government.

Interesting side-story: I met a couple of Germans who had been traveling with a French girl who worked at the French Embassy in Bangkok.  Typically people who work for foreign governments, NGOs or the media declare some other occupation during their visa application, but this girl brazenly declared her affiliation with the French Embassy.  On her first day in Yangon, she was approached by a Burmese gentleman who awkwardly started up a conversation and began to follow her around.  He said that he used to live on So-and-so Street in Bangkok – the same exact street she lived on.  No coincidence.  He started asking her where she was going, and why she came to Burma.  Strange, isn’t it?

But anyways, let me get back to the story of the Mustache Brothers.  As you may have guessed, they are three mustachioed brothers who have been performing a comedy routine for over forty years.  They performed at weddings and family gatherings, and they eventually built themselves such a reputation that Aung San Suu Kyi (“The Lady”) invited them to perform at her home in Yangon to celebrate the 48th anniversary of Burmese independence.  Their jokes were typically critical of Burma’s roads and infrastructure, but they stopped short of directly criticizing the government.  But at The Lady’s house, they pulled straws to decide who would be one to change that.

By western standards, the joke was relatively innocuous: You used to call a thief “a thief.”  Now you call him “a civil servant.”  Three days later, two of the brothers were arrested and sentenced to almost two years of hard labor, imprisonment and torture.  The international community was outraged and people took to the streets in London to rally for their release.  10 comedians wrote a letter demanding the release of the Mustache Brothers.  Ironically, the government took the comedians seriously and eventually released the brothers.

This is what I knew as I approached their house in Mandalay.  They were officially banned from public performances, but they still performed “dress rehearsals” in their house every night.  The cost was a $5 donation.

I was immediately approached by a small bald man with a long, grey Fu-Manchu mustache.  The mustache brother led me into a small, dimly-lit room.  There were four wooden pallets on the floor and another man was covering the wood with a dirty red carpet, thereby forming something of a stage.  One wall was covered with posters of the Mustache Brothers with Aung San Suu Kyi and their other supporters.  The other wall was decorated with traditional marionette puppets.  There were three other foreigners sitting on plastic chairs.  I joined them, and the brothers’ 84 year old mother closed a curtain over the door and stood watch in front of the house.  The show began with just the four of us watching.

It was undoubtedly the oddest performance I have ever witnessed.  It began with the brothers talking about how they do not give taxi drivers commission for their show, how they were honest gents just struggling to continue performing.  It struck me as unusual that an innocent man would have to spend so much time professing his honesty, but I kept my mind open.

Then the comedy began.  It is understood that comedy rarely transfers from culture to culture, so I give the Brothers credit for cracking all their jokes in English.  They were certainly no Dane Cook, but they had some good ones.  Here’s one for ya:

Three months ago, I can’t sleep.  I have toothache.  I go to Thailand to see a dentist.  In Thailand they have democracy, I mean real democracy: 4 Prime Ministers in 3 months, that’s democracy!  Haha.  I was in a taxi and I saw people wearing yellow shirts in the street (he’s referring to Thailand’s opposition party, known as the Yellow Shirts), and I joined them.  They asked me, Why do you  come to Bangkok to see a dentist, don’t you have dentists in Burma?  I said, ‘Yes we do, but we’re not allowed to open our mouths!’

The jokes went on like this for a few hours, all the time the man jumping around the stage and maniacally flipping through painted wooden signs that supplemented his jokes.  The jokes were mixed in with movie clips from the US Campaign for Burma DVD, music played from an ancient tape player, and traditional Burmese dances performed by their wives and sisters.  Their wives performed in traditional silk gowns while one of the brothers danced around with a green monkey mask on.  It was such a strange combination of sights and sounds, by the end of the show I was utterly disorientated and unsure of what I had just seen.

But it wasn’t all jokes, he actually told me some shocking facts about the political situation.  He told me about the systematic rape of the Kachin and Shan women.  About the human-landmine-detectors.  About his prison term and the forced labor and torture he endured.  He said that in 1987 General Ne Win suddenly declared all 100, 50 and 20 kyat notes worthless, replacing them with 75, 35 and other denominations he deemed to be ‘lucky numbers.’  All the people who held the old notes lost all their savings when their money was made worthless with the stroke of a pen.  Many women snuck into Thailand to become prostitutes so they could send money back to their families.  They returned from Thailand with AIDS and spread the disease through Burma.  It was a sobering conversation I had with them.

When the brothers were arrested, the police came to their house at midnight so as not to make a scene.  They said the police always arrest people at night – one night your friend is drunkenly discussing politics at a bar and the next day he doesn’t show up for work.  The police make every effort to make things appear normal on the surface.

To me, that is the scariest part – how normal things appear on the surface.  The government prefers package-tourist to backpackers because such tours whisk tourists from place to place in air-conditioned buses and airplanes, thereby isolating and insulating them from the people.  They pay top dollar for government-owned hotels, they fly in government-owned airplanes, they see the “pretty-side” of Myanmar, and then they fly home.  I’m afraid if you asked one of these people about the political situation, they would say “Well, it didn’t seem too bad to me.”

From talking to the locals, I have come to the following conclusion.  The package tourists are right – it doesn’t seem that bad.  And that’s the worst part about it.  The government calculates the breaking point of the people and keeps the standard of living just slightly above this threshold.  Life isn’t good, but they have food in their bellies.

But in 2007, the government crossed the breaking point.  They cut the petrol subsidies and subsequently took a huge chunk out of the people’s collective paycheck.  That was enough to send people into the streets, led by the Buddhist monks.  And did the government concede?  No.  They shot the monks dead in cold blood.

The brothers had noticed me taking notes during their performance and assumed I was a journalist.  They gave me a DVD to copy and distribute in Thailand and the US.  They even entrusted me with a package for a friend in another town I was visiting.  I asked for their email.  They were not allowed one.  Telephone?  Nope.

We parted ways and I took off on my bike with their rebel contraband in my backpack.  It really felt like I was a few hundred years in the past – in a time before phones and the internet, like the Revolutionary War where rebels had to carry documents past the Redcoats by hand.  Burma really is like no place I have ever been before.

And yet I still did not know what to think about them.  Their initial insistence that they were honest men made me doubt that very claim.  Then they asked for $8, not $5.  Of course I was willing to pay them to support their bravery, but still it seemed strange.  I later talked to travelers who reckoned they are cashing in on their popularity from their mention in the Lonely Planet book.  Someone else claimed they had made a deal with the government in exchange for their freedom – they continue to perform, as long as they don’t say too many bad things about the government, and the government avoids having to deal with the fallout for locking them up again.

I didn’t know what to believe, but I tried to imagine a similar situation in the US.  Could you ever imagine Obama or Bush throwing Jon Stewart into jail and sentencing him to five years of hard labor and a stint of torture in Guantanamo Bay?   No way.  Though we might have something as deplorable as Guantanamo Bay, at least we are able to freely criticize our government.

Freedom is something we really take for granted in America.  But being an American traveling through Burma has really been a refreshing experience.  When George Bush failed to find WMDs in Iraq, he claimed we were there to promote democracy.  Many people around the world saw that as a thinly veiled pretext for controlling Iraq’s oil supply.  It is a pity that so many people think America’s commitment to democracy is a farce.

But not the Burmese.  These people have no freedom and they pray to have American-style democracy one day.  Though many people have lost faith in America, the Burmese people have not.  They wear American flags on their hats and shirts, and they love talking to me about American democracy.  Some of the Europeans I am traveling with joke that they are jealous of me because all the Burmese people are so excited to talk to an American.  Conversing with these oppressed people has truly renewed my faith in my own country.

They repeatedly ask me a difficult question: What is Barack Obama going to do for Myanmar?  I don’t know how to respond.  Of course we support their movement, but what does that mean?  If they rise up in the streets are we going to give them weapons, or did our experiment with backing South East Asian resistance movements end after the Vietnam War?

It hard to know what to do.  But if you have read this far, then I guess that means I’ve done something doesn’t it?  So for now, I urge you all to keep spreading the word.  Keep spreading awareness about Burma and this despicable situation.  That’s all for now, good night.

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