Burma's opposition muted but alive
In the fifth of a series of articles from inside Burma, the BBC's Kate McGeown looks at the strength of opposition to the country's hardline military government.
In a small house in the Burmese city of Mandalay, three comedians spend their days putting on shows for tourists.
Calling themselves the Moustache Brothers, they perform traditional Burmese vaudeville - a mixture of song, dance and slapstick humour.
But in reality, the show is more about politics than entertainment - and interspersed among their routines are jokes poking fun at life under the country's brutal military regime.
The reason the show is so popular is because it is such a rarity in Burma. Hardly anyone else dares to openly criticise the government, which is not surprising given the likely consequences - long prison sentences, hard labour or worse.
But the Moustache Brothers say they have little to lose; two of them have already served long jail terms and they are reduced to performing at home because they have been banned from all public venues.
"We're on the government blacklist already," said Lu Maw, one of the trio. "There is nothing more the authorities can do to us."
Most Burmese people, though, seem to have decided that after 40 years of military government, it is best to just get on with life rather than protest against the system they are living under.
One man, who was given a two-year jail sentence in the 1960s for being a student demonstrator, told me he had lost the spirit to fight.
Now a successful businessman with a wife and three children, he said: "Since I came out of jail, I've managed to build a life for myself as best I can, and keep out of any trouble - but I'm still very, very worried about my country."
While there is little open defiance, many people are still prepared to do what little they can to register their opposition to the military regime.
"I purposely avoid going to anything the government could use as propaganda, like the opening of a new pagoda or a celebration for something," one man said.
Another man, the head of a rural community, said his entire village stopped every evening to listen to at least one foreign radio broadcast.
"We never miss a day," he said proudly, explaining that it was the only way they could really find out what was happening in Burma because local media was so heavily censored.
But he acknowledged that while the villagers would like to take part in a more active form of resistance, they were simply too scared.
"We're waiting and hoping for change, but what can we do? Look at what the government has done to the Lady [Aung San Suu Kyi]. If they can do that to her, think what they would do to us," he said.
As leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and daughter of independence hero General Aung San, Ms Suu Kyi is the focal point of Burmese opposition.
Many people consider her the country's rightful leader, because the NLD won national elections in 1990 but the military refused to hand over control.
She has been in some form of detention for 10 of the last 17 years, but however hard the military junta tries to make people forget about her, she remains at the forefront of many Burmese citizens' minds.
"The Lady is our best hope for the future. She is the one person who can unite everyone together," one man told me.
"I totally support the Lady in everything," said another man. "I will always support her and the NLD."
Waiting and hoping
In Ms Suu Kyi's absence, her party campaigns tirelessly for her release and for constructive dialogue with the regime.
"One day the nation will explode, and people will rise up against the government," said NLD spokesman Nyan Win. "Until that day comes, we will continue to push for dialogue and reconciliation."
But there are some people in Burma who say the NLD is too idealistic. "They won't compromise on anything, so nothing changes," said a Rangoon activist.
"It's got to the point where many people in Burma are just waiting for outside help to overthrow the regime, rather than doing what they can right now, to change things from within," he said.
Waiting is something the Burmese are getting very good at. After more than four decades of military rule, there is still no end in sight.
But whether they actively opposed the government or not, I found that the vast majority of people I spoke to still dared to hope that things could get better.
"One day I'm going to perform properly again," said Moustache Brother Lu Maw.
"Maybe this street will become like Broadway or the West End," he joked, looking out at the dusty alley he lives in.
The Moustache Brothers - and in fact everyone in Burma - know they have a long way to go for their dreams of democracy and freedom to be realised.
But despite everything, they have still not given up.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2006/06/19 00:31:27 GMT
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