Brothers in Arms: The Moustaches and Ko Mya Aye

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…

Par Par Lay, jailed 3 times has spent more than 6 years in prison and labour camps

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.

Lu Zaw, cousin to Par Par Lay and Lu Maw, was jailed for 6 years

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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Zarganar Protests Planned for Edinburgh Festival

Article in the Democratic Voice of Burma about the huge amount of campaigning we will be doing at Edinburgh Festival in particular highlighting Zarganar/

Read the article on the DVB website

Htein Lin, artist and close friend of Zarganar, spent more than 6 years in prison. he has the name of his friend written on the palm of his hand.

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Zarganar. The Man The Junta Could Not Silence.

Late on Sunday 6th June I received an email from Htein Lin. It contained a new poem from his close friend Zarganar and was accompanied by an illustration from Htein Lin himself. It is a remarkably moving poem and illustration as well. The fact that Zarganar is in Myitkyina jail serving a 35 year sentence has done nothing to stem his creative ability. The few of us who were sent the poem were asked if we could publish it where possible, so I put it up here on this blog and sent it to my friend Andy Buncombe, South East Asia correspondent at The Independent (he had previously done the 5 page story in The Independent on Saturday magazine featuring U Win Tin). Three days and many phone calls later it was published in the newspaper, a double spread centrefold. A truely fitting tribute to an icon of modern times.

Zarganar. Your words are loud even though your voice may be silenced.

Below is the article as printed in The Independent – click HERE to read it online.

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EXCLUSIVE: Zarganar – A New Poem from Inside Hell

Below is an EXCLUSIVE new poem from Zarganar who is currently detained in Myitkyina prison in Kachin state. The poem was received by his good friend Htein Lin (and former political prisoner) who drew the accompanying illustration and asked me to publish them for you all to enjoy… so here they are:

‘Untitled’
by Zarganar, Myitkyina Jail, 2010

It’s lucky my forehead is flat

Since my arm must often rest there.

Beneath it shines a light I must invite

From a moon I cannot see

In Myitkyina.

Zarganar @ Thura was first jailed in 1988 and spent 1 year in Insein prison for his role in the mass demonstrations. He was jailed once more in 1990 and this time was sentenced to 4 years in prison. But it was in 2008 that the SPDC dealt the most severe of sentences on him due to his humanitarian efforts in helping those whose lives where devastated in Cyclone Nargis whilst all the Generals could do was stand and watch. On 21st November 2008 Zarganar is sentenced by the Court to 45 years imprisonment for violations of the Electronics Act. On 29th November 2008 he receives an additional 14 years under four sections of the criminal code—17/2, 32 (b), 295 (a) and 505 (b), bringing the total sentence to 59 years. However, on 16th February 2009 following appeals, Yangon Divisional Court reduces the prison sentence by “up to 24 years”, bringing the sentence down to 35 years. He is currently detained in Myitkyina prison in Kachin State.

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Happy Birthday Zarganar

Comedian. Actor. Director. Political Prisoner

Today Zarganar @ Maung Thura celebrates his 49th birthday as one of Burma’s most prominent political prisoners. Born on 27th January 1961 in Rangoon, Zarganar (Zar Ga Nar / Zargana) is not only one of Burma’s most famous comedians, film director and actor, but he is also one of the most fierce critics of the ruling military regime. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for his role in both publicly criticising the military regime’s response to Cylcone Nargis as well as for his involvement in leading a group of entertainers in distributing private aid deliveries to cyclone affected areas and its victims. He was arrested on teh evening of 4th June having been previously detained 4 times already. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison on 21 November 2008 for violating the Electronics Act, and received an additional 14-year prison term on 27 November for offences under four sections of the criminal code – 17/2, 32 (b), 295 (a) and 505 (b) – for his peaceful opposition activities, bringing the total sentence to 59 years in prison. This total of 59 years in prison later commuted to 35 years.

He is currently detained in Myitkina prison in Kachin State and is suffering from extreme ill-health.

This is Htein Lin, friend of Zargana and former political prisoner. He was detained for 6 years in Insein, Mandalay and Myaungmya prisons.

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