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Comedy and Tragedy in Burma: Grappling with Aung San Suu Kyi’s broken legacy and the Myanmar genocide

Oskar Butcher
RB Article
October 6, 2018

Every night in an unassuming shop space located in Mandalay’s 39thStreet, Lu Maw and Lu Zaw – the remaining members of the Burma’s most famous comedy trio, the Moustache Brothers – present their show: a curious combination of comedy, political satire, and traditional Burmese dance. Par Par Lay, the group’s leader, passed away in 2013.

The Brothers’ history of human rights activism is no less than inspirational. For decades, they have unrelentingly critiqued their country’s despotic military regime through their comedy. The third generation of comedians in their family, they have suffered terribly as a result. 

Following a performance at the home where Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest in 1996, Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were dragged from their beds in the dead of night and thrown into the city jail. The men were locked up for five years, with Lay sent to a distant facility and punished through hard labour, breaking rocks. Six years prior, Lay’s humorous take on the regime’s refusal to honour the National League for Democracy’s landslide election victory had already seen him serve six months behind bars. At no point did Brothers’ cutting satire of the regime relent.

Since Aung San Suu Kyi’s ascent to de facto national leader, the Brothers’ show appears somewhat out of step with the values of human rights and democracy that they have for decades espoused*. Their enduring praise for Aung San Suu Kyi – who is deeply complicit in the atrocities being carried out by the Myanmar state against its Rohingya minority - leaves their shows with an uncomfortable void. The performance seems indicative of the profound tragedy of Burma’s failed democratic transition. 

Today, Myanmar’s military – who remain the butt of most of the show’s jokes – retain control over the country’s most significant levers of power. Their relationship with Suu Kyi, formerly the most prominent thorn in their side, has become increasingly cosy. Nonetheless, it is unsurprising given the extent of the suffering endured by the Moustache Brothers, that they view their country’s failed democratic reforms as something of a triumph. The walls of their modest theatre are covered in photos of Suu Kyi. In many of these, she is pictured alongside the comedians. 

Speaking of Suu Kyi, Lu Maw tells of the Brothers’ great pride in seeing her in a position of power. He speaks of their shared struggle for freedom and democracy, how the Moustache Brothers were right there with her, and emphasising that “she is one of us”. When Lu Maw speaks, there is an unmistakable twinkle in his eye. It seems to say: ‘we made it’. 

The state of the country, including basic civil and political rights, has improved significantly in the last few years for the vast majority of the population – Moustache Brothers included. This, however, can never be the measure of human rights or democracy. 

The atrocities against the Rohingya have killed well over 10,000 people - with up to 43,000 missing, presumed dead. In total, approximately 700,000 have been driven from the country. Neither Suu Kyi’s shocking denials of these atrocities, nor the crimes themselves, are mentioned during the Moustache Brothers’ show. Given the group’s courageous history, it is clearly not fear that has induced their silence. Rather, it is likely something far more human: a need to believe in the purity of the democratic movement of which they have long been a part, and a loyalty to its leader - Aung San Suu Kyi. 

In February 2018, the United Nations recognised Suu Kyi’s complicityin the crimes against the Rohingya; crimes that they six months later have determined amount to genocide. Better late than never, these conclusions echo the findings of research conducted by the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University, three years prior in 2015. As any position that Aung San Suu Kyi once held as a moral or democratic authority has been rendered entirely untenable, many of her international honours have been revoked. Her popularity across Myanmar, however, remains largely intact- as does the country’s rampant islamophobia.

In recent years, the virulent Islamophobic rhetoric of extremist, monk-led hate groups such as the 969 Movement has sparked deadly anti-Muslim riots across the country. According toAmnesty International, their hate speech has become increasingly normalised by the country’s political and military elite, who have encouraged society at large to “hate, scapegoat, and fear” Muslim minorities.

And whilst today much of the population believes the Rohingya to be ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’to Myanmar’s Rakhine state, this myth has no basis in fact. As Professor of Asian and Military History at SOAS, Michael Charney explained, there has been extensive movement amongst both the Rohingya and the Rakhine peoples throughout the state historically, and in actuality, “the [Muslim] Rohingya are no more illegal migrants than the Buddhist Rakhine”. Yet the consequences of vicious anti-Rohingya sentiments could not be more severe. 

Whilst military bases are erected on the ruins of towns and villages where Rohingya lived and prayed only months ago, the Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo languish in jail for exposingmilitary massacres of Rohingya civilians. Reportedly “furious” upon being asked about the journalists’ ongoing incarceration, the Aung San Suu Kyi who said in 2014 that whilst moving towards democracy “we all need to work to point out our country’s faults” is nowhere to be found. 

Nonetheless, a number of international Burmese and Rohingya voices have been active in condemning Burma’s crimes, and bearing witness to their country’s genocidal ‘faults’. Local movements opposing the persecution of Muslims, however, are few and far between. Those who do so publicly belong to a small, brave and dedicated group of human rights activists. 

One grassroots campaign, Panzagar, brings together campaigners in opposition to hate speech, and in particular online and anti-Muslim discourse. With over 200,000 Facebook likes - no mean feat in a country with estimated 2.5% internet access – it would appear that there is greater support for such a movement than first appearances might otherwise suggest. The group has even benefitted from the support of Zarganar, another celebrated Burmese comedian and former political prisoner who is one of the few prominent Burmese figures to have spoken publicly about the plight of the Rohingya. His efforts, however, which have at times been channelled through official governmental commissions, have produced mixed results. 

When the economic, social, and political status of a majority population improves significantly – as has been the case in Burma since 2011 – it surely becomes more challenging than ever for members of that majority to protest the treatment of a small, marginalised, and scapegoated minority. As the past year of genocidal violence against the Rohingya demonstrates, however, it has become far more urgent. 

The Moustache Brothers are an inspiring illustration of Myanmar’s proud tradition of the finest kind of human rights activism. From a human perspective, their dedication to Aung San Suu Kyi is understandable. However, the Suu Kyi of their movement – the democratic icon who insisted on pointing out her country’s faults – is no more. As painful as it may be to renounce their one-time leader, highlighting her hypocrisy and indifference towards the suffering Rohingya would demonstrate an ongoing commitment to the principles for which Burmese human rights activists have long taken a brave stand.

As the gears of the international community slowly grind into action - with the UN now recognising the gravity of the crimes perpetrated and the International Criminal Court launching a preliminary investigation - Myanmar’s military maintains its brazen denials, and Aung San Suu Kyi remains enveloped in a deafening silence. Lasting change in Myanmar will not be achieved through international efforts alone, however, and long-term change will require an internal shift in the country’s attitude towards Islam and the Rohingya. Easier said than done, no doubt, but if the country is ever to overcome its tortured past and genocidal present, the rights of all people must be guaranteed regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion. 

*Author visited a Moustache Brothers’ show in October 2017. 

Oskar Butcher is a human rights activist interested in Myanmar and the politics of conflict, justice, and forced migration. He works at the Death Penalty Project and volunteers as a Speaker with Amnesty International. He was awarded an MSc from SOAS, University of London, in 2017. 

Twitter: @Oskar_Butcher

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