The military regime in Burma keeps a tight rein over freedom of speech.
Films, music, journals, and newspapers must past the censorship board before being published.
Despite this, one comedian troupe, Thee Lay Thee bravely criticizes the junta with a dynamic live performance and film.
King Kong Janoi attended one of their shows in Chiang Mai to find out more.
Five Burmese comedians, sing we will fight the military government with jokes as our weapon.
Even though we may go to jail, we will do it!
The audience of more than a hundred Burmese migrants roars with laugher.
This group called Thee Lay Thee is renowned for its edgy political satire.
After the show student Nai Aung is still laughing about one of their jokes.
“You know, the joke about Burma’s leaders showing off in front of other world leaders. The American president says proudly at a gathering of statesmen: “An American without legs can climb Mount Everest,” the Russian president then says, “A Russian without arms can swim across the Atlantic.” The other world leaders are stunned by these two statements but then the Burmese leader comes to the rescue and says, “In my country, a man without a head and brain can run the country for 20 years.”
When performed on stage this joke draws loud applause from the audience.
40 year Godzilla the leader of the group says their show reflects how the Burmese people feel.
“When we write comedy scripts, we base them on how people are feeling and suffering. We travel and go in the field and talk to people. They tell us what is happening to them. So the rulers know what is going we retell their stories in the form of jokes.”
The show is full of funny routines about corruption, the lack of electricity and the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations last September.
Jokes that could see the comedians end up in jail in Burma for a long time.
But Godzilla boasts on stage that they are touring the world.
“After this performance in Thailand, we’re going to perform in other countries, including Singapore, South Korea, the United States, Canada and Germany. After that, we’re going to perform in Moscow.”
A big laugh sweeps over the audience. In Burma, ‘Moscow’ means prison.
Amazingly the group performed in Rangoon last November, just one month after the pro-democracy protests were crushed by the military.
Before the show authorities requested they sign a document saying they would not make political jokes.
A request they ignored.
But right after the performance they left the country and have been traveling ever since.
Godzilla says they will go back.
“But right now we want to tell the Burmese communities outside the country about the real situation inside. They may not really know what is happening and we want to show them our traditional a-nyeint performance.”
Many of their supporters worry about their safety.
The ruling Burmese generals view political comedians as enemies.
Fellow comedians Zarganar and Par Par Lay were jailed for a month during the September pro-democracy demonstrations.
Previously, both were imprisoned for several years.
In 2004 Zarganar produced a highly popular film that joked about corruption and the lack of electricity.
It was banned by the military government.
However the film is widely available in neighboring Thailand.
Back on stage Godzilla is telling a joke about the temples having to be shutdown during the September uprising.
“As comedians we have to expose our countries weaknesses. The people are suffering because of the wrongs of our rulers. We may not be able to change their behavior but we have to expose it. We are like a bridge between the people and the rulers.”
The troupe ends their performance with a song about how the junta murder demonstrations last September.
The troupe says they will continue traveling and pushing the boundaries of expression.