Mandalay – After years of lampooning the junta, Myanmar’s Moustache Brothers aren’t ready to stop poking fun at the regime yet, despite dramatic changes that mean laughter is no longer such a risky business.With nothing more than their sharp wit, the sexagenarian members of one of the long-isolated country’s most famous comedy troupes are perhaps among the bravest dissidents to have stood up to the generals.

And they pull no punches when it comes to the new army-backed government that took power last year after almost half a century of outright military rule ended in the country formerly known as Burma.

“It’s old wine in a different bottle,” said Par Par Lay, 64, also known as “Brother Number One”.

Officially banned and blacklisted, the act counts pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi among its fans, but these days they perform in English to growing numbers of foreign tourists at their nightly show in their home city Mandalay.

With the regime embarking on a series of dramatic reforms, the satirists hope one day to be able to take their act on the road, and enlighten the poor about the political situation.

For now, however, Par Par Lay, his younger brother Lu Maw and their leathery faced cousin Lu Zaw are contented to be able to tell the world about their country through laughter.

Lu Maw, a wiry 62-year-old whose broken English is peppered with mismatched idioms, elicited nervous laughter by admonishing the crowd at a recent show to be quiet because government agents were nearby.

“We are blacklisted, jail birds, and illegals you know, so you are also here illegally,” he told a young American woman in the front row before breaking into a grin.

“But don’t worry, the government loves tourists because they want your dollars.”

At another point in the show Par Par Lay asked the crowd if they wanted to see an authentic Burmese act.

Within seconds, he was wearing a balaclava helmet over his moustachioed face and sporting a hand gun as he gingerly mimicked a thief breaking into a home.

“That’s how they are, like Jesse James, Ali Baba, like bandits,” Lu Maw said on the microphone, alluding to the military to scattered laughter from the crowd.

The trio used to lead one of Myanmar’s most popular traditional comedy acts.

But their colourful show took a political turn when they fell foul of the authorities in 1996 for making fun of the junta during a performance at Aung San Suu Kyi’s house in Yangon to mark Independence Day.

Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were arrested and sentenced to seven years imprisonment, sparking worldwide appeals for their release. They were sent to a labour camp and freed in 2001.

The experience might have crushed any ordinary comedian, but not Par Par Lay and his gang, who emerged from the bitter experience even more emboldened and daring in their attacks on the government.

Par Par Lay was detained again in 2007 during a crackdown on the “Saffron Revolution” pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks, but released after about a month.

The brothers are still officially banned from performing publicly, but they have found a way to continue their act by staging it for tourists in the family’s cramped garage in Mandalay.

The regime is not the only butt of their humour — their jokes also target the West, and in particular the United States, which recently upgraded diplomatic relations with the Southeast Asian nation.

Feigning seriousness, Lu Maw wondered aloud why US-led coalition forces had not sent unmanned drones to Myanmar, whose military he said had been involved in some of the world’s most atrocious rights abuses.

“Burma is the same as Libya, Egypt, Somalia or Syria. But they all have oil,” Lu Maw said with a naughty wink.

“Ah, but they (the West) don’t know what we have — we have opium and heroin too.”

After the one-hour show, the brothers personally thanked every visitor and sold them souvenirs.

They said the money would go to helping those political prisoners still languishing in jail, despite a series of mass pardons that have seen hundreds of others walk free under the new reformist government.

Par Par Lay said he was confident Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party would do well in parliamentary by-elections set for April 1, but he called for a close watch on the ballots.

“She will win, everybody knows that,” he said. “But April 1, the day of election, is also April Fool’s Day. We hope it’s not going to be a joke.”