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Freedom From Fear: Remembering Comedian U Pa Pa Lay

06/08/2013 15:42 BST | Updated 06/10/2013 10:12 BST

U Pa Pa Lay is dead. According to sources in Burma, the comedian died at 1pm last Friday, 2 August 2013. Three times jailed by the Burmese junta for exercising his right to freedom of expression, one of his most famous jokes was this one:

I came all the way from Burma to India, to visit the dentist for treatment. The Indian dentist was very surprised to see me. He asked: "Don't you have dental surgeons in Burma?" I replied, "Yes Sir, but they are unable to work as Burmese people are ordered not to open their mouth by the Military Government of Burma."

Jokes told by U Pa Pa Lay were mainly told "out of public sight" at a backstreet makeshift theatre at his home in Mandalay. There too he would fearlessly joke about government corruption, inefficiencies, mismanagement, inflation, intimidation by officials and other topics strictly forbidden to criticize - let alone joke about - in Burma.

Burma (known diplomatically as Myanmar) was ruled by a ruthless military regime for almost forty years. Recent history is well documented but seldom spoken of.

Let us make no mistake here. Burma during these years was ruled in a brutal fashion. It is a country of around 50 million people. A military body of 500,000 soldiers denied these 50 million people their most basic of human rights. The junta was responsible for the widespread use of forced labour, of forcibly evicting 1.5 million people from their lands, imprisoning many thousands of political prisoners (many of whom were routinely tortured in the most horrific way), recruiting as many as 70,000 child soldiers - more than any other country in the world - and permitting the use of rape as a weapon of war against ethnic women and children.

In 1990 the regime half-heartedly held democratic elections, then ignored the landslide victory - a staggering 81% of parliamentary seats - by the National League for Democracy, led by pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, imprisoned her cohorts and supporters and reinforced themselves once again as a totalitarian regime.

It takes a person of great courage to take a stand against such a regime in a place like Burma. U Pa Pa Lay was such a person.

With his comrades U Lu Zaw and Lu Maw by his side, U Pa Pa Lay completed the line-up of a comedy act known as the Moustache Brothers, imprisoned firstly in 1990 for mocking the junta's refusal to recognize the results of that year's election, then again in March 1996 after giving a performance where they sang a comic song about the junta. After serving that sentence (detained in a labour camp and forced to work with iron bars across his legs), U Pa Pa Lay was re-arrested in October 2007 by security forces during a government crackdown on protestors amidst the monk-led uprising. Released four years later and kept under close surveillance by the authorities, U Pa Pa Lay and the Moustache Brothers continued to satirize the ruling junta by performing their trademark slapstick routines of screwball comedy and Burmese dance, often relying on donations by foreign visitors to survive.

Burma is now ruled by a quasi-civilian government, slowly adjusting to democratic change. U Pa Pa Lay has died during these changes. His brother Lu Maw eulogized him as a daring man. "What is sad is that my big brother did not live to see the 2015 election, because he always told his audiences that 'it's the most important moment for our country.'"

U Pa Pa Lay - along with his fellow comedians U Lu Zaw, Lu Zaw, Zarganar and Kyaw Thu - is to be respected and remembered by the comedy community worldwide. He was a fearless hero who played his part in highlighting the anguish of a people in a land where peaceful freedom of expression has been denied. His contribution to the world of comedy is symbolic and we are all the better for knowing his story.

U Pa Pa Lay, comedian and satirist. Died of prostate cancer, aged 67, on 2nd August 2013.