The State School of Fine Arts and Performing Arts in Rangoon, close to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s house and the place where Apple, Godzilla and Harn Lay were all educated. The architectural style is highly atypical for Rangoon. it is sometimes referred to as the Ching-Cheong Palace, after the wealthy Chinese family that built it.
The Burmese comedian Zarganar was a regular favourite on state-owned broadcaster MRTV in the 1980s. He achieved such fame that in 1985, he was invited to perform for the ruling generals of what was then the Burma Socialist People’s Party. Having been warned in advance to avoid political jokes at all costs, Zarganar showed up with two plasters in a cross over his mouth. General Ne Win, the head of state who had crippled the country since taking power in 1962 and introducing the “Burmese Way to Socialism”, asked why his mouth was bandaged. Zarganar explained and Ne Win laughed, but soon after issued Zarganar with a strict warning, which he ignored. One Zarganar joke from that time goes like this:
“Every country has a success story to tell. Some like to boast about a citizen with no hands who can still write, or another with no legs who can still run. But there’s no other country like Burma. Here we have generals able to rule a country for 20 years with no brains.”
During the 1988 uprising, Zarganar became a student leader in Rangoon. He was arrested twice, the second time for delivering his routine at a political rally, and endured torture and solitary confinement during his detention at Insein Prison. Upon his release in 1995 he was allowed to perform a strictly censored version of his routine, but after talking to the BBC in 2006 he was placed under a gag order, which banned him from all radio, film, stage and print media. Even the mention of his name was banned. He was arrested again in 2008, after speaking to foreign media about Cyclone Nargis, and sentenced to 59 years in prison. The sentence was later reduced to 35 years, but he was moved to a remote prison in Myitkyina, Kachin state.
A trained dentist, Zarganar jokes that dentists in Burma can’t get work because nobody is allowed to open their mouth for treatment. He gets his nickname, Burmese for “tweezers”, from the tools of his profession, and likes to introduce himself by saying, “If there is a hair of fear, use Zarganar to remove it.” Zarganar now tells jokes to his prison guards in Myitkyina, who in turn share them with their families, and so his jokes continue to trickle out across the country.
Apple (Pan Thee)
Apple, a comedian, performer and former student of Zarganar’s, lives in exile in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He tells this joke about the army:
“A Thai and a Burmese general are bragging to one another about whose army has the braver soldiers. The Thai general suggests they each call a soldier over to prove it, and the Burmese general suggests they order the soldiers to cut off all their limbs. The Thai general does so, but the soldier refuses. ‘I can’t do that,’ he says. ‘I have a wife and child at home. I have to take care of them.’ The Burmese general calls his soldier over to do the same. The soldier immediately obeys, and the Burmese general declares himself the winner. The Thai general takes the wounded Burmese aside. ‘Don’t you have a brain?’ he says. ‘Why did you do that?’ The Burmese soldier responds, ‘Because I have a wife and child at home. I have to take care of them, so I must obey.’”
While his delightful, drooling one-year-old crawled around on the floor of his apartment, Apple explained that the Burmese soldier knew to fear the consequences of his actions on his family. That was the funny part.
Apple is a member of Thee Lay Thee (“Four Fruits”), a troupe whose performances are in the style of the traditional Burmese anyeint, which combines dance, music and puppetry with comedy skits, and which was re-popularised by Zarganar. Shortly after the monks’ uprising in 2007, Thee Lay Thee, then under Zarganar’s tutelage, performed at a popular open-air venue on Kandawgyi Lake in Rangoon. That turned out to be their last performance in Burma. They went on to Singapore, Thailand and Japan, but by the time they were ready to return, Zarganar had been imprisoned; the troupe decided to remain in Thailand to avoid his fate. There hasn’t been a comedy show at Kandawgyi Lake since.
One of Apple’s favourite jokes about the head of state who succeeded Ne Win, Senior General Than Shwe, goes like this:
“Than Shwe is touring in a helicopter with his comrades. ‘Drop 5,000 kyat notes from the helicopter – the Burmese people will be very happy,’ Prime Minister Thein Sein tells him. ‘Dropping dollars from the plane would make them happier,’ General Maung Aye says. A crew member pipes in. ‘If you’d really like to make Burmese people happy, then you’d all keep the money in your pockets and just drop yourselves out of the plane.’”
I asked Apple to tell me a joke about democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but he wouldn’t do it. “I don’t make jokes about Aung San Suu Kyi because she’s so respected,” he explained. “When she becomes prime minister or does something wrong, then we’ll make fun of her.”
I once mentioned that it was Earth Day to a Burmese colleague. She responded, “Every day is Earth Day in Burma.”
A true story: after Cyclone Nargis, which hit the country in 2008, killing 140,000 according to official figures (even though the number is thought to be far higher) and devastating the country’s southern delta region, Senior General Than Shwe toured some of the worst-hit areas and handed out DVD players to victims. It was a fittingly absurd gesture from a regime that has sold most of the electricity Burma generates to China and Thailand, while large areas of Burma itself remain without power. In some parts of the delta, electricity is so rare that, even after the monsoon, children do not fear electrocution when their kites bump against tangled power lines.
Still, people joke, “You can be electrocuted by the state newspapers. They are the only place where the electricity is always on in Burma.”
Front page of the state mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, the day after the election
Political cartoonist Harn Lay is a small, sturdy man of gentle demeanour who has made a career out of images that ridicule the Burmese regime. Like Apple, he lives in Chiang Mai, where he draws cartoons for the Irrawaddy, an exile media organisation. He started out by painting cinema posters in his hometown of Taunggyi, in Shan state, before attending the State Academy of Fine Arts in Rangoon, where he studied painting, sculpture and architecture. During the 1988 uprising, he was a soldier in the Shan State Army under infamous guerrilla leader Khun Sa, but now he says he prefers a pen to a gun. “There’s a lack of humour inside Burma,” he says. “You can tell because life expectancy is decreasing. With Zarganar in jail and his troupe defunct, the jokes are fewer day by day. Humour is invaluable to the life of a human being, for refreshing the mind and instigating change.” This is a common hope among comedian exiles: that laughter can spark a revolution.
Over half of the films produced in Myanmar every year are comedies, according to the Myanmar Film Academy, although the few laughs that are permitted are hollow. The comedy genre, like the live circuit, is largely dominated by slapstick, and local “big men” (luu gyi; government informants) are stationed at every show.
Harn Lay feels that by drawing, he is “participating in the revolution”. “Human beings have fear in their minds,” he explains. “I try to be fearless, because if I’m afraid, the next generation will only be more afraid. Dictatorship cannot last forever. History is a cycle. Nothing lasts forever.”
Maung Myo Min
Last year, one of the few anyeint troupes still active inside Burma, under the direction of veteran Burmese film director Maung Myo Min, performed at Thuwanna, the largest stadium in Rangoon. The show included jokes about the uselessness of mobile phones in Burma and the poor quality of its roads. (Most have the pitted texture of the moon’s surface, if they are sealed at all.) Very soon after, the director and actors were placed on a blacklist that bars them from performing. It was a swift, harsh rebuke for Maung Myo Min, who only a few years earlier had been presented with an award from the Ministry of Information for his film about people in Burma living with HIV/Aids.
The Dogs of Rangoon
Since all public events in Burma, from gallery exhibitions to rock concerts, must be approved in advance by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division of the Ministry of Information, most jokes circulate between individuals (or, less commonly in a population without widespread access to the internet, online). Because the Burmese language is tonal and filled with homonyms, it lends itself well to puns, which can help jokes to slip past the internet censors.
But there are other ways of spreading humour. In the book Small Acts of Resistance, former Burma Campaign UK director John Jackson describes an event that occurred during the brutally suppressed monks’ uprising in 2007. Protestors rounded up legions of Rangoon’s mangy stray dogs, which were soon seen roaming the city with images of Than Shwe and other senior leaders tied around their necks. Troops attempted to chase them down, but as one local observed, they were “quite good at avoiding arrest”.
Top, Harn Lay's version of Burma's recent history. Bottom, Thee Lay Thee
The World’s Greatest Liars
In 1999, the Mirror (Kyemon), one of the government’s daily propaganda rags, ran a series of articles about “the world’s greatest liars”. Government newspapers are more typically filled with photographs of generals opening bridges and power plants (to the extent that Burmese refer to them as the country’s version of Hello). One day, a print roller was improperly cleaned, so that some copies of the print edition displayed a ghostly headline reading “The World’s Greatest Liar (1)” above a photograph of General Khin Nyunt, then chief of intelligence, meeting with foreign diplomats. There were reports of beatings; three editors were imprisoned.
In November 2010, the Burmese military junta, the State Peace and Development Council, held multi-party elections as part of their seven-step “roadmap to democracy”. Aspiring politicians were required to step down from the military and replace their uniforms with mufti. Prime Minister Thein Sein swapped his military uniform for the traditional Burmese longyi and gaung baung and formed a civilian party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. On October 21, 2010, they traded Burma’s old flag, a knock-off of the Taiwanese one, for a knock-off of Ghana’s (but with a bigger star) in a country-wide ceremony shrouded in mystery. The Union of Myanmar has been known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar ever since.
The preceding August, an Australian colleague dining out in Yangon mentioned to his waiter that his country was having an election, and they didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. The waiter responded with hysterical laughter.
Shortly before the Burmese election, the entire country’s internet was down for almost six days. Mobile-phone SIM cards mysteriously disappeared from stores. The government blamed the internet outage on cyber-terrorists and claimed that it was updating the cellular network, but internet shutdowns in Burma are not uncommon at times of political sensitivity. There was a sudden influx of orange motorcycles into Rangoon, their riders hanging little camouflage-covered helmets from the handlebars. (Motorbikes have been banned from the city for several years, after a general was spooked by a biker riding too close to his cavalcade; any that appear now are almost certainly carrying government spies, whose efforts at covert operation are accordingly minimal. On election day, I could tell I was being trailed because a motorbike rode practically alongside me as I walked.)
Nobody doubted the outcome of the elections. People were seen carrying full ballot boxes to polling stations before voting had even begun. My taxi driver nodded vigorously when I asked him whether he had voted. “Yes, yes, madam,” he said, “three times!” Godzilla, a former member of Thee Lay Thee, sums up the situation as follows:
“In 2009, Than Shwe announced elections and promised world leaders and members of the un that there would be a change of regime. The 2010 elections were successful, and Than Shwe invited international observers to prove its legitimacy. But when [UN Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon arrived, he was met by familiar faces. ‘I thought it was supposed to have changed, but now that I look at a list of the government I see all the same names,’ he said. ‘I thought it was going to change to a democracy.’ Than Shwe replied, ‘Of course we have changed! Can’t you see? We’ve changed our clothes.’” §