musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for August, 2013

Par Par Lay Passes Away

More sad news from Mandalay today: legendary comedian Par Par Lay, a member of the famed Moustache Brothers troupe, has passed away at the age of 67. One obituary I read listed the cause of death as kidney disease and yet another blamed prostate cancer. Whatever the real cause, one thing is for certain: Par Par Lay passed away far too soon. His energy, sense of humor, vitality, and perseverance will be missed by both the citizens of Myanmar and foreign tourists who had the chance to see Par Par Lay perform.


Par Par Lay was both an entertainer and a political activist, not afraid to poke fun at the ruling military junta of Myanmar during their years in power. In fact, making jokes about the generals landed Par Par Lay a stretch in jail (one of several incarcerations he endured) after an Independence Day performance in 1996. Whatever the exact joke was, it ruffled enough feathers to earn Par Par Lay a seven-year sentence, later commuted to five years. After his release in 2001, he re-formed the Moustache Brothers “A-nyeint Troupe” with his younger brother Lu Maw and cousin Lu Zaw. Barred from making public performances by the government, the trio cleverly started giving “demonstrations” of traditional Burmese dances and songs at their home in Mandalay. Their singing and dancing performances were spiced by Lu Maw’s comedic spiel in English, along with some bold political opinions thrown in for good measure. The Moustache Brothers’ performances started drawing crowds of tourists, thanks to write-ups in guidebooks such as Lonely Planet and daily newspapers such as the New York Times. They even warranted a mention in the film About a Boy.


I saw several Moustache Brothers performances over the years and would even stop by their house in the afternoon on occasion to buy t-shirts or take Lu Maw some books he had requested. The “brothers” and their wives (along with sundry other relatives who were always hanging out at the house) were always very hospitable, inviting me in for tea and conversation. One time they entrusted me with a DVD of a benefit performance they had given in Mandalay for victims of Cyclone Nargis, asking me to send copies to various websites and newspapers.


But what I remember most about Par Par Lay was his big smile, a grin that could look either mischievous or joyful. Whether he was playing bongos, crooning a traditional Burmese tune, or dancing with wild abandon, Par Par Lay always looked like he was having a great time.


As popular as Par Par Lay and the Moustache Brothers became with tourists in recent years, it couldn’t rival the fame that they enjoyed with natives of Myanmar. Par Par Lay was a huge star, both before and after his arrests. Even Burmese people working in Thailand knew that face. I’ll never forget the time in Bangkok when I had just hopped off a motorcycle taxi one night. As I was paying the driver, another motorcycle slowly passed us and the driver turned his head and stared at me with this look that conveyed both total surprise and sheer joy. “Par Par Lay!” he shouted. I thought; Huh? And then it dawned on me: this guy had noticed the Moustache Brothers t-shirt I was wearing and had been overjoyed to see Par Par Lay’s familiar face grinning back at him. I couldn’t help but laugh.


Damn, Par Par Lay is going to be missed by a lot of people.


Cambodia Rocks

The national elections in Cambodia were held last week and it came as no surprise that Prime Minister For Life (or so he keeps hoping) Hun Sen and his CPP thugs — uh, I mean, party — won re-election once again. Actually, the big surprise was that their margin of victory was much less than expected, giving the rival CNRP (Cambodia National Rescue Party) more seats in the National Assembly. The latest tally that I read gave CPP 55 percent of the seats, a sharp drop from the 73 percent that they won (Bought? Stole?) in the last election in 2008.


The big pre-election drama was the return of Sam Rainsy, a longtime nemesis of Hun Sen and now the head of the CNRP, who had been living in exile in France the past couple of years. But a week before the election, Hun Sen apparently paid attention to veiled threats from the likes of the United States, who were calling for “free and fair elections,” and arranged for Sam Rainsy to be pardoned for a “crime” that was dubious in the first place. But that was a case of too little too late, and with only a week to campaign — and not even being eligible to vote himself — there wasn’t a whole lot that Rainsy and his supporters could do. Or so it seemed. The fact that they did galvanize and inspire a lot of people — many of them disgruntled and disgusted by years of intimidation, terror, and corruption by Hun Sen and his minions — was actually quite impressive.

 cam_party truck

Before the election I asked one Cambodian friend living in Phnom Penh what he thought about it all.

“Of course I will vote. My opinion is I really would like this country that I live in to have the real democracy. And I think it is fair for the other party to have a chance for a try. I hope things would change a bit, even if we could not do much, but at least something.”


Another friend, this one living in Siem Reap, sent me an e-mail the day after the election.”

“The election in my country was very bad. Too much corruption and cheating from CPP. I feel ashamed to all people in the world about what my leader did. The reputation of Cambodian is gone because of him.”

So, the elections may be over, but there is definitely a defiant feeling lingering in the air and the whole situation feels very unsettled. It’s too early to predict that there will be marches and demonstrations or people will take to the streets and occupy public squares in Phnom Penh. If there was an Arab Spring could we be in store for a Khmer Summer?  


One encouraging sign, in addition to the decrease in votes for Hun Sen and CPP, is the growing number of young people who are voting and taking to social media to express their opinions. Cambodians used to strike me a very timid bunch, afraid of challenging authority and not daring to voice their opinions. Perhaps that’s a legacy from the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, which, if you’ll remember, wasn’t such a long time ago. But there is a new generation, those under the age of 30, who were born after the end of the Khmer Rouge era, and they don’t seem to share the same submissive and fearful traits that their parents did.


This new generation wants change. They are tired of waiting. They are tired of being poor. They are tired of seeing Hun Sen and his buddies driving around town in their fucking SUVs and throwing lavish parties and wedding receptions, and then jetting off for shopping sprees in other countries. These people want a share of that pie too, instead of the meager crumbs that have been randomly tossed to them for the past three decades.

 A change is gonna come, baby, and with any amount of luck we may not have to wait five more years. Hun Sen, your days are numbered.



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