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Burma's Moustache Brothers killing audiences, avoiding arrest

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

“Come to Burma, but don’t steal,” says the slim and jovial Lu Maw, pausing for the punch line: “The government don’t like competition!” The crowd of 10 tourists, including six Thai monks huddled in a small garage in Mandalay, laugh.

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Despite several arrests, prison terms, and the fact that they’re now confined to their house, the Moustache Brothers, the infamous Burmese comedy and performance troupe centered around three brothers, haven’t give up their craft. Two of the three, Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw, served seven years of forced labor after criticizing the junta during a performance at the home of Aung San Suu Kyi in 1996, at a time when the Nobel Peace Prize winner was not under house arrest. Their plight was later taken up by Amnesty International.

Though they’re confined to performing at home, and in English, the brothers have retained some of the show’s original satirical criticism of the regime but are limited by language and a foreign audience. Most of the show is given to jokes based on Lu Maw’s knowledge of English idioms (“My father died; he kicked the bucket!”) and pleas for tourists to visit the impoverished country. Those foreigners who do come inevitably end up in the Mandalay back street, happily watching a condensed version of the once-glorious comedy-and-dance show and buying souvenir T-shirts.

“It’s not the same as when we traveled around the country playing to the Burmese,” says Lu Maw. Nonetheless, the brave brothers say the show must go on. And go on it does.