Meeting Burma’s dissidents inside the country holds great risks for everyone involved. For many it is too dangerous whilst others are able to do so under different guises or because they have in some way formed an uneasy alliance of sorts with the regime, but whoever and however these risks are taken with the overwhelming desire to inform the outside world about the situation in Burma. Defying and countering the state propaganda with the truth is the risk that dissidents, journalists, opposition groups and often ordinary people take every day in Burma. Staying silent is not an option for many. That’s what the regime want them to do. Whilst some leading opposition voices, including Aung San Suu Kyi, are often able to quietly and ‘unofficially’ meet with foreigners without much cause for retribution from the authorities (thankfully so far anyway), almost every other dissident and even ordinary person in Burma runs the very real risk of interrogation and even prison if caught or even suspected of meeting foreign journalists and the like. A simple journey to the NLD offices can strike fear into the heart of many a taxi-driver in Rangoon. To be able to meet and photograph the people that I have these past weeks defies not just the regime but also logic as well as the insanity of the situation that they find themselves having to try to survive in. But nothing is taken lightly. Due to the nature of taking part in this work deemed an act that may “affect the morality or conduct of the public or a group of people in a way that would undermine the security of the Union or the restoration of law and order,” under Burma’s draconian 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, almost everyone who has taken part cannot yet be shown for obvious security reasons. Their safety above all else is paramount. However, whilst as with U Win Tin last year, there are a number of dissidents who we are able to show publicly…
Having been moving around Rangoon subversively for the past few weeks it’s time to head out of town and up country to Mandalay. I will miss my evening or early morning walk around the beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda. A peaceful haven in so many different ways. Serene and silent it holds as much hope as Burma’s democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi and like the Lady it plays the most important of roles in Burmese peoples lives. As with Rangoon and elsewhere before, I cannot mention names or places but can only say that as always it was a privilege to meet those who I did whilst here in Mandalay. Brave men and women, jailed for many years but still continuing with their unfinished work to change Burma’s roadmap to one that reads more coherently. The only portraits from Mandalay and basically Burma as well, that can be shown now are those of the fantastic Moustache Brothers.
The Moustache Brothers, ‘Par Par Lay’ and ‘Lu Maw’ joined by cousin ‘Lu Zaw’, are one of Burma’s most famous and most loved comedy acts famed for their now banned ‘A-Nyeint’ vaudeville performances that combine classic Burmese dance, screwball comedy and sharply satirical criticism of the military regime. But their controversial style attracted the attention of the authorities and they became an international symbol of political oppression in Burma when they were arrested in 1996. It was during Independence Day celebrations held in the compound of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Rangoon home and in front of watching government officials and dignitaries that their performance poking fun at the regime would end in their arrest. The defining sketch that would see them jailed ended with Par Par Lay being shot multiple times by a Burmese General and when refusing to die he replies “Why should I die when I am right?”. The play on words was not lost on the watching military officials and Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were arrested and sentenced to 7 years hard labour. Brother Lu Maw had not travelled to Rangoon and so escaped punishment. Much of their time incarcerated was spent in chains in a hard-labour camp in Kachin state, but thanks to a global campaign lead by Amnesty International and many Hollywood stars demanding their release along with negotiations lead by Aung San Suu Kyi, they were freed on 13th July 2001. Despite being banned from performing ever again and under virtual house arrest as part of their release conditions they continue to perform each night to tourists, still telling the jokes and subversively the truth despite constant threats from the authorities that they would be jailed again. In September 2007, Par Par Lay was in fact jailed again for 35 days for offering food to monks during the Saffron Revolution.
Par Par Lay decided straight away that the only name he wanted on his hand was that of ‘Mya Aye’, one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Students who is currently serving a 65 year sentence in Taunggyi prison and suffering from extreme poor health. As we talked about Mya Aye and his colleagues, Par Par Lay’s boundless enthusiasm started to drift towards Mya Aye’s daughter ‘Waihnin Pwint Thon’, now a leading global campaigner for Burma in her own right. Their eyes lit up as they spoke of her now famous speech they had heard and watched last year and then even more so when I told them that she was a very close friend of mine. They decided they wanted to send a video message for Ko Mya Aye to accompany their portraits and here it is shown above.
After many laughs, tea and the occasional serious chat we decided on a final group shot in solidarity for their good friend ‘Zarganar’ before parting company once again. Brothers in arms. Still laughing but also still fighting.
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