It was two hours into Election Day in Mandalay, Myanmar, on the morning of November 8, when a fire broke out on 39th and 80th Streets, across from the home-cum-theater of the Moustache Brothers, an outspoken, hyper-controversial Burmese comedy troupe that's been under government surveillance for three decades. With people already on high alert over the election—the first democratic election in the country after almost 50 years of military rule—the smoke and sirens sent the whole neighborhood into a panic.
But the Moustache Brothers were accustomed to political chaos, and so the incident was met with a devil-may-care, Zen-like attitude reserved for the kind of people who have already experienced the worst.
"A lady left her stove on when going to vote," explained Zin Mi Htun, laughing. She's the 28-year-old daughter of Moustache Brother Lu Maw, whose doorway is just feet from the fire. "She makes traditional cakes. You should try one!"
The firetrucks and crowd soon dispersed and life at the Moustache Brothers' returned to normal as if the incident never happened. With the nation standing firmly on the doorstep of democracy, thanks to the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League of Democracy (NLD) party, everyone's mind is preoccupied, most of all the Moustache Brothers.
The Moustache Brothers rose to popularity in the 1960s, performing nyeint, a traditional Burmese form of anything-goes-style comedy that combines dance, skits, slapstick, vaudeville, and standup. They got their start as comedic hired guns who performed their act at weddings, house parties, and local festivals. While they stuck to nyeint's traditional style, the Moustache Brothers were unique in their willingness to openly and shockingly critique Burma's corrupt military dictatorship.
"We always wanted to point out the weaknesses of the government," says Moustache Brother, Lu Zaw, now 65. Their act was chock-full of political satire and direct commentary on government corruption.
The group was a trio for most of its history, but lost their leading man, Par Par Lay, in 2013, allegedly from drinking contaminated water in prison. Since then, Par Par Lay's younger brother, Lu Maw and Lu Zaw, a cousin who earned his admission into the troupe, have carried the show.
"I asked a tour driver to find a place for me in a nyeint," recalls Lu Zaw. "I started packing and carrying loads for the group and eventually started performing."
Once initiated into the group, Lu Zaw and the troupe faced their heaviest burden: On January 4 1996, Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw performed their routine in Yangon at an Independence Day ceremony. It was held at the home of the governments perennial target, Aung San Suu Kyi, an opposition politician and chairman of the NLD. At the time, Burma's junta was cracking down on and imprisoning outspoken critics and looking to make examples of dissenters. Fearful of arrest, many of the day's acts canceled. But Par Par Lay refused, and Lu Zaw performed in solidarity with him.
"We knew we were going to get arrested after the show," says Lu Zaw. "But before we went on, we were focused on what jokes we were going to crack."
As expected, when they returned to their garage theater in Mandalay, they were arrested and then interrogated and tortured. Both Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were sentenced to seven years in prison. (They were released five years and seven months into their sentence due to international petitioning and pressure.)
With two of the Moustache Brothers behind bars, Lu Maw, who had stayed in Mandalay during the performance, was ordered to stop performing for Burmese people. Lu Maw was also barred from visiting his brother in prison, but he was persistent and defiant, and the government eventually cut him a deal: perform for only tourists, and only in English.
"In one of my first performances [without Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw], the garage was lined with police and someone was shooting video from the balcony across the street," says Lu Maw. "Eventually I shut the lights off, performed in the dark, and told audience members not to clap."
Still, Lu Maw seized the performance opportunities to bring awareness to the plight of his troupe. He began incorporating dozens of signs in English into the act, which would show up in tourist photographs, and hoped to inform the international community. He also took to learning English idioms so undercover agents in the audience wouldn't be able to understand his punchlines.
Upon Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw's release in 2003, the troupe reunited and began its stint performing as a trio for foreign tourists. While losing the Burmese audience was a blow, performing for tourists was better than not performing at all.
"I miss performing in front of the local people very much, says Lu Zaw. "If the government gives us permission to perform again, I'd be very happy, but I'm getting old."
Now, decades since their imprisonment, Myanmar is experiencing their freest, most democratic elections in decades.
"I just voted," said Lu Maw, holding up his ink-stained pinky, proof of a vote cast. "But the government already knows who won."
Lu Zaw, the more reserved and reflective of the two, seemed more optimistic. "I'm so excited. I can't wait to hear the results."
The election is a historic one, with Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD party poised for a landslide. But since the Burmese government reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military, the NLD would still have to fight an uphill battle. Many Burmese, eager for change, voted early, and by 10 AM, everyone who stopped by the garage theater showed off ink-stained pinkys. With schools and many businesses closed for election day, dozens of friends came and went, piecing together the day's narrative.
Lu Zaw and Lu Maw passed the time the way they always do: Lu Zaw, on a wooden bench in the street, quietly watching the action; Lu Maw, studying from a book of American idioms.
Around 3:30 PM, Lu Maw's daughter, Zin, walked to the neighborhood polling station to watch the 4 PM poll closing. Volunteers were allowed inside to watch vote counting, and Zin was approved as a witness to observe the election results from the neighborhood.
Back at home, the Moustache Brothers prepared for their daily 8:30 PM show. The kitchen quickly turned into a dressing room, with makeup preparations underway; the garage, a theater. By curtain time, 30 or so foreigners had filled the garage. The show started and thoughts of the election were put aside.
The hour and a half show began, as always, with two video clips: one from the infamous 1996 performance, and a bit from About a Boy where Hugh Grant's character mentions Par Par Lay's imprisonment. A number of dances, sketches, and standup routines performed by family members and friends followed.
"You might think this is a helmet," said Lu Maw, wearing a policeman's helmet in one standup routine. "But it's actually a donation box," he adds, flipping the helmet over. Everyone laughed.
"It's amazing to see this show on election day," said Wendy Zhu, an audience member from New Zealand. "It's the people that make this show. It's the friendliness of these people that really makes it."
Minutes after the show, the stage transformed back into the garage; chairs were stacked, beer bottles were popped, and Zin had returned to share the news from the neighborhood count: The NLD won the area in a landslide.
Lu Zaw changed out of his costume and into a red NLD shirt. Al Jazeera English, announcing the latest results, blared from inside the garage. When news shifted from the election to the Pope, Lu Zaw muted the TV and blasted the NLD theme song at maximum volume instead. He picked up an NLD flag as tall as him and headed out into the driveway alone, where he waved the flag in long, sweeping motions, singing along to the party's anthem in the exact spot where he and Par Par Lay were arrested all those years ago.
The next day, the group was groggy. "I need to take a hair off the dog," Lu Maw said, laughing. "Too much wine and celebrating last night."
The news arrived that the NLD swept all ten districts in Mandalay, but the talk about budding democracy only seemed to highlight the absence of Par Par Lay, who was jailed again in 2007 and led a No Fear campaign in 2012 to encourage citizens to speak out.
"This is the time to be talking about Par Par Lay," said Lu Zaw, tears silently dripping down his face onto his Moustache Brothers T-shirt. "If he was alive, he'd give all the money in his pocket to the cause."
But it is people, not money, who powered this election, and any concerns about voting irregularities and manipulation were quickly dismissed as people shared screen shots of generals' concessions and massive celebrations in Yangon. Results from around the country continued to trickle in throughout the day, and a few family members drove a truck to the results-viewing party at the regional NLD headquarters.
"I'll be here holding down the fort," laughed Lu Maw, as the truck pulled away.
At the viewing party, Lu Zaw stood in the center of the front row, the glow of the LED screen on his face. He looked tall and proud as he folded his arms over his Moustache Brother's T-shirt, in a way that left Par Par Lay's cartoon face poking out from below.
"I'll be dancing all the way home if we win," said Lu Zaw. "I want my country to be a prosperous, peaceful place."
Fifteen minutes into the viewing party, the power went out. It came back on briefly—long enough for Lu Zaw to relish a few cheers with his people—but when the lights went out again, Lu Zaw and his group decided to head back to get dressed for their next daily show. He would have to save his dancing for the stage.
If and when word should arrive of a democratic Myanmar, it'll certainly be a night of utter joy for Lu Zaw, but as for his most treasured memory—that's already spoken for.
"Performing that day in front of thousands of my people at the home of Aung San Suu Kyi," says Lu Zaw. "That was the best day of my life."
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