MANDALAY: During Myanmar’s darkest days of dictatorship, the Mustache Brothers’ brazen, sarcastic stabs at military leaders won them nationwide notoriety, and fans. While the feisty comedic duo continues to draw large crowds under the nominally civilian government, there is one subject they refuse to poke fun at: Upcoming general elections.
After all, they say, the country’s future is at stake, and it’s time to get serious. As the sun sets on the city of Mandalay, a crowd forms and the two men start stressing the importance of voting for the National League for Democracy. The opposition party’s popularity is tied closely to its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest when the junta ruled as she called for respect for human rights, the rule of law and national reconciliation.
“Our people have suffered from bad politics since 1962,” said the extravagantly mustachioed Lu Maw. “There’s been so much damage in the past. That’s why it is so important for all of us.” “Everybody wants real change,” the 65-year-old added, “so it is so important the NLD wins.” Myanmar started transitioning from a half-century of brutal military rule to democracy five years ago. But it’s been a bumpy road. Early reforms implemented by nominally civilian leaders – including the release of junta-era political prisoners and the freeing up of the media – have stalled or started backsliding.
Pulling the strings
Many believe the country’s old military rulers are still pulling the strings, and that they will continue to do so even if the NLD wins the majority of seats in Parliament – as most experts predict. When Myanmar goes to polls on Nov. 8, the Mustache Brothers want people to be out there, exercising their newfound rights to vote. If they do?
“Oh, the NLD will win by a landslide!” says clean-shaven Lu Zaw, 63. “I would say the NLD will win the coming election for sure, as long as it is free and fair.” The Mustache Brothers – they are actually cousins – perform regularly at their house-turned-theater in Mandalay and, these days, on the streets campaigning. As evening falls, the pair are in full swing. One yells out, “Please don’t steal anything. The government does not like competition.” The other parades around with a sign that says “Competition.”
Though now fixtures on the tourist trail, many years ago they were the jesters who were too edgy for the generals. That story goes back to 1996. Irked by one particular show the junta arrested two of the then-three-man team. They served five years in prison with hard labor.
One of those who was jailed has since died. Today the surviving Mustache Brothers still make fun of the current leaders. But the ordeal left its mark. With the prospect of real political change approaching there are some things too serious to joke about.
“I have no plan to tell jokes about the election because I don’t want to cause a disturbance,” says Lu Maw, who avoided prison because he didn’t perform on the fateful night. “This is a very important time for us and I’m taking it very seriously. I don’t want to detract from the election’s meaning by my jokes.”
The Mustache Brothers have a special relationship with Suu Kyi. The infamous performance that sent them to prison took place at her home in Yangon, at an Independence Day celebration. She’s never forgotten what happened, and they are devoted to her. “Vote for the NLD!” the men chant as the audience breaks out into a dance. “They are the guiding star of the people!” – AP