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Standing up as female comedians in Burma

Originally appeared in Shan Women’s Action Network Newsletter (March 2012) #12

 

Just before the 2010 elections, the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) joined with comic artists “Thee Nyi Noung” to produce a highly successful comedy performance satirizing the electoral process and discrimination against women under military rule.

Performed to a packed audience in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and televised on the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), the show was groundbreaking. For the first time women took the lead as comedians, a role traditionally performed exclusively by men.

SWAN members Muay Noom Hom and Ying Hom, two of the lead comedians, talked about the experience.


Q: What was the main objective of the comedy show?

MNH:We wanted to highlight the ongoing human rights abuses by the military regime, the effects on people’s lives, and how the elections were not going to bring real change.

Q: Why were you interested to take part in the show?

YH: Most people in Burma think that comedians should be men. I thought it was a great chance to show audiences that women could be good comedians too. I also liked the fact that it was a new way to raise women’s voices.

Q: What was it like being a comedian?

MNH: It was really hard work. We had only two weeks to practice, and had to rehearse late into the night. We were part of the main fourwoman stand-up comedy team.It was very tiring. I also knew that if I performed on stage, I might be arrested if I went back to Burma, so it was a big decision. I felt really nervous beforehand, but when I was on stage and the audience started laughing, it felt great. I’m really glad I’ve had a chance to become a comedian.

Q: What were the main challenges for you?

YH: We were all from different ethnic backgrounds, so we couldn’t speak Burmese very well and were afraid that some words or idioms wouldn’t be understood by the audience. We were also worried about our acting gestures and facial expressions, as none of us had ever acted before.

Q: What advice would you give to other women who want to be comedians?

MNH: You need to have confidence in yourself, and be prepared to sacrifice a lot of time. You also need language skills, which is why it would be great if we could also perform in our own language.

Q: What are the differences between Shan and Burmese comedy?

YH: Shans have a type of stage show called “Jad Tai” which is a drama with singing and dancing.

There are jokes, but it is not like the Burmese “a-nyein” stage shows where a row of stand-up comedians make jokes. Anyway, due to the lack of freedom of expression in Burma today, no one can publicly stage a comedy that openly criticizes the government.

Q: After this fi rst show, you have performed in several other comedy productions by WLB, shown on DVB TV. What kind of feedback have you had?

MNH: There’ve been emails from women all over Burma. They really like the shows, and want more.

It’s clear comedy is a great way to raise political awareness. A lot of people now recognize me. I’ve had compliments about my acting, but some suggested that I need to improve my pronunciation. It encourages me to try harder. I’m glad I’ve found a talent that’s useful.

I used to think I didn’t have any particular skills which were helpful for my organization, but now I feel I can do a lot for the movement.