There is gain without pain

No gain without pain

Popularly elected President Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest almost continuously for 18 years. Neither the Nobel Peace Prize, which she was awarded in 1991, nor negotiations between the UN and the military regime could change that. But the opposition in Myanmar is not completely broken. Many intellectuals and artists resist the dictatorship. Mostly covered.

Night in Mandalay. In the south of the dusty, stuffy royal city of Myanmar, formerly Burma, it is complete darkness. After eight o'clock in this part of Mandalay the power goes out regularly, there are no street lights and little car traffic. On 39th Street, a faint glow of light falls from a gray, crooked low-rise building. And the high, falsetto-like voices of three men.

Here, in the heart of Burma, a special cabaret group performs. The Mustache Brothers. The Mustache Brothers are Papa Lee, Lu Maw and the almost blind Lu Zaw. They have huge gray mustaches and turbans made of pink cloth. They call themselves comedians. Just like their fathers and grandfathers. Like on Broadway, says Lu Maw. But there are few comedians on Broadway and elsewhere in the world who have paid as dearly for their jokes as the Mustache Brothers.

The stage of the Mustache Brothers is a simple board shack with a red, scuffed carpet. Countless marionettes hang behind it. They wear the golden hats of Burmese courtiers and wide, flowing robes. There is no curtain. And yet for a long time it seemed as if the curtain had long since fallen on the Mustache Brothers. Burma's secret service was to blame for this.

The Stasi is like my bodyguard, explains Lu Maw to the German guest and laughs. He knows his regular audience. In almost every show there is a man in sunglasses, even though it is pitch black outside on 39th Street. The man in the sunglasses is an envoy from the Myanmar military regime. Lu Maw pretty much knows how far he can go.
He puts on a white helmet like the one worn by the military police in Burma. Then he reaches out his right hand and lets a spectator give him a banknote. The hand quickly disappears into the waistband of his longyi. Lu Maw grins.

Easy money. Earned quickly. That's how it works in Burma. Especially at the top. The rich income from the sale of timber and the country's gem mines flow into the pockets of the generals. Lu Maw wouldn't say that. He doesn't want to irritate the Stasi too much. Not again. Instead, he and his wife, wearing witch masks, dance across the tiny stage like children.

There are usually a large number of foreign visitors among the guests of the comedy show. But that evening there are only five. Including Gerhard, a young student from Vienna. He admires the Mustache Brothers.
For the Mustache Brothers, tourists like Gerhard are a kind of life insurance against the arbitrariness of the military government, says Lu Maw.

"They could arrest us at any time. Every night. That's why we need tourists. As witnesses. Those in power are afraid of that. Tourists make us untouchable."

Untouchable. This is how the Mustache Brothers felt for a long time. They were the most famous cabaret group in Burma back in the mid-1990s. They performed A-Nyeints all over the country. A kind of vaudeville show that lasts from sunset to sunrise. They danced, sang, joked about marriage, clumsy rice farmers and greedy Chinese. Sometimes also through the country's military regime. The jokes about the generals went down particularly well with the audience. Joke about bribery, arbitrariness with the authorities and about the uniform of brother number 1, Burma's head of state General Than Shwe. The general looks like an award-winning sheep with all his tinny medals. Papa Lee, the head of the Mustache Brothers, imitated the general. Ironically, he called himself "Brother Number 1". Then he and his brother Lu Zaw received an invitation to the capital, Rangoon. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the independence fighter Aung San, who is revered in Burma, had become aware of the comedians. It was 1996.

The Nobel Prize winner and President-elect was under house arrest. Papa Lee and Lu Zaw performed an anjee in the Aung Sans house. Many of the guests were members of the opposition. That night - it was eleven years ago - Papa Lee and Lu Zaw pulled out all the stops. They burned down a firework of jokes critical of the government and were supposed to pay dearly for them: a week later, the secret service arrested them. Defamation, was the charge. The verdict after a brief show trial: seven years in prison.

The two Mustache Brothers did not go to Yangon State Prison like most political prisoners. The military regime locked her in a labor camp: the notorious Hallewa camp in northern Burma. Brother Lu Zaw lost an eye here.

"We had to break stones all day long. With iron chains on our feet. Every week two or three prisoners died. From exhaustion or malaria. But we survived."

When the brothers returned to Mandalay, they hesitated. How would the regime react if they stepped on the stage again? English tourists told them that they had heard of the Mustache Brothers in Europe. They were even mentioned in a movie, in "About a Boy" with Hugh Grant. The Mustache Brothers decided that the show had to go on.

Today the Mustache Brothers audience consists almost entirely of tourists. Sometimes there are five, sometimes twenty-five guests. Sometimes the wobbly wooden stools in front of the stage stay empty. Locals are not allowed to attend the show, but only a few dare to. Sometimes Lu Maw feels like a tiger in a cage. He was used to performing in the street. In front of hundreds of people.

"I miss my audience. In Burma you need a permit from the city administration if you want to organize a party. For example a birthday party. You can only hire artists who are approved by the administration. And then you can celebrate from sunset to sunrise. Only: if you want to hire us, you won't get permission. "

The Mustache Brothers hope for better times. They long for the day when Nobel Prize winner Aung San is back in the audience. As last in 2002, when the generals briefly lifted house arrest against them. Countless people celebrated one night with the elected president on the small theater stage in Mandalay. A photograph behind the stage recalls that night. The paper is already beginning to yellow. Every evening Lu Maw takes the picture from the wall and holds it in the audience like a monstrance. Photography stands for the dream that most people in Burma do not dare utter: freedom. The motto of the current comedy program: No gain without pain.

"The people of Burma want to be free. They want democracy. We don't give up hope. But without pain, no gain."