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Comedians in Myanmar Face Bans


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Comedians in Myanmar Face Bans


Associated Press Writer

September 6, 2006, 4:12 AM EDT

YANGON, Myanmar -- In Myanmar, there's not much to laugh about these days. Ask some of its most famous comedians.

Two of the Moustache Brothers, a trio known for jokes about the omnipresent secret service and, curiously, for classical Myanmar dance, were sentenced to five years in jail at hard labor after making fun of the country's ruling military generals.

Although blacklisted from public performances, the aging performers leveraged their cause celebre status -- an Amnesty International campaign helped win their release -- into securing the government's OK to perform, if only at their home for tourists.

Others have not even been as lucky as the "brothers" troupe, actually two brothers and a cousin.

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. One woman comedian who made off-color jokes about the generals -- and who shares 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 so the authorities are afraid of our jokes," said Maung Thura, a dental student turned stand-up comic barred from the stage since May. "It is very difficult to perform nowadays. Most of the comedians are banned."

Myanmar's brand of humor would seem innocuous in most societies, like a joke now making the rounds that Maung Thura told about a chat by an Englishman, an American and a man from Myanmar, also known as Burma.

"Our man who had no legs could climb Mt. Everest," brags the Englishman, and the American shoots back, "Our man sailed across the Pacific with no hands." Then the Burmese chimes in: "That's nothing. Our country has been ruled for 18 years by a group of men who have no heads."

But such cracks are enough to land comedians among Myanmar's more than 1,100 political prisoners, according to the U.S.-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 recent soccer World Cup to the observation that the daily power cuts only give teenagers greater opportunity for hanky-panky in the dark.

Maung Thura -- perhaps the country's most popular comic, known by the stage name "Zargana" -- was banned after giving an interview to the BBC, supposedly for criticizing the regime's rules on Thangyat -- performances that traditionally poke fun at society and politics.

Zargana has a history of run-ins with authorities. Offered a seat at a police station when once taken in for questioning, he reportedly replied, "Thanks, but I don't want to sit down, because once I sit on a chair I won't want to give up my seat" -- a reference to then-Prime Minister Ne Win's penchant for clinging to power.

"They could not stop the conversation between me and the people," Zargana, whose shaved head and rimless glasses lend him an air of modernity, said in an interview. The comedian, whose nickname translates as "tweezers," is just the latest casualty of the crackdown on comedy.

"Let me put it this way, I think hard-line generals don't like jokes," said Aung Zaw, editor of Irrawaddy, an independent newsmagazine based in Thailand that reports on Myanmar-related issues.

Comedian-singer Mg Myit Tar was silenced by authorities in 2001 when, as host of a music show on state-run TV, he interviewed a female singer of high school age and congratulated her for finishing her education -- a pointed reference to the regime's frequent closures of universities.

The famous Moustache Brothers have been barred from working in public since the late 1990s. In 1996, brothers Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were imprisoned for cracking jokes during a rally at the home of democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Their crime? "Spreading false news."

After calls for their release flooded in from around the globe -- top American comedians including Bill Maher, Ted Danson and Paul Reiser sent a letter -- the brothers were reunited in 2001 with their cousin and partner, who wasn't at the Suu Kyi show. Now they are effectively banned from performing in Burmese, meaning most of their viewers are tourists.

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

Last year, one of the trio remarked to a foreign audience, "We're blacklisted. That means you are illegal too, and the secret police are coming to arrest you." When an Italian woman appeared upset, he winked and assured her, "That was just a joke," according to an account in the South China Morning Post.

One of the more bizarre crackdowns that still makes comedians here chuckle was directed at an elderly comedienne and actress who had the exact same name as junta leader Gen. Than Shwe.

According to Zargana, the comedienne Than Shwe was barred from performing when she refused the regime's demand in 1997 that she change her name. She died 2004 in a village outside Yangon, away from the limelight.

Even faced with a performance ban, Zargana seems resolute and brash. He speaks of a "whispering campaign" and insists under-the-table humor will persist in Myanmar's taxicabs, teashops and dining rooms.

"Burmese people love to laugh," he said. "But if I can't speak, jokes will still spread. The people will make them up themselves."

Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.


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