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Sticking your neck out in Burma

Book review

Sticking your neck out in Burma

From the Land of Green Ghosts

by Pascal Khoo Thwe

Flamingo, 2003

ISBN 0 00 711682 9

Reviewed by Sebastian Blockley

The Padaung, a seminomadic pastoralist tribe of Mongolian/Tibetan descent are best-known

for the brass/silver/gold alloy neck rings worn by some of their women. They have

long represented some sort of exotic "other" to the West; some were exhibited

by Bertram Mills Circus as part of a Freak Show in pre-World War II France and England

and more infamously in a human zoo in Thailand in the 1990s. "Montagnards",

"Hill Tribes", throughout the region are running out of time and space

and being drawn into modern conflicts that originally had nothing to do with them.

Land of Green Ghosts is the extraordinary autobiography of Pascal Khoo Thwe, the

grandson of one of Bertram Mills's exhibits (interestingly they took absolutely no

offence and returned enriched by more than just money, convinced that the English

were freaks with their weird tea ceremonies to placate incomprehensible spirits!)

Born in 1967, he grippingly tells the dramatic story of his cultural, educational

and physical journey out of the isolated jungles of south Burma.

His imagination is fired by his grandmother's old stories and animist tribal myths:

"Another world began to fascinate me - the world of books, a forbidden land."

This is a story of a life of assimilations and he has already absorbed an animist,

Catholic and Buddhist world view by the time he reaches Mandalay University at the

time of the military's brutal suppressions which cut short his doctoral studies.

He personally witnesses and records the malevolence of the military and the rise

of Aung San Suu Kyi as a spokesperson and figurehead. This formerly bookish questioning

and spiritual boy soon has a rifle and is a reluctant revolutionary on the run, rotting

away in the jungle with thousands of others.

In a life marked by dramatic external events, his salvation is particularly magical.

It involves a Chinese rest aurant, James Joyce and a letter smuggled out of a Thai

refugee camp to a moonlighting British literature professor who plays a deus-ex-machina

role. Thwe is rescued from there to complete his degree in English Lit at Cambridge

University.

This book is important in so many ways. As an eternal "outsider" separated

by class, culture, ethnicity and geography from his own compatriots - let alone the

rest of the world - he has a complex eye for empathy with complex cultural differences

and correspondences and an engaging way of expressing them. He is a natural story-teller.

Anyone making lazy assumptions about "primitive peoples" will be surprised.

On being told that the Padaung are a bronze-age people, he concurs that he does indeed

see parallels between his society and the world of Homer and the Greek tragedians.

There is a hilarious account of the tribe's conversion to Catholicism involving a

lost Italian priest and a literal wrestling match for souls with his grandfather.

The priest "a benign Mr Kurtz in Heart of Darkness as much a convert to animism

as the tribe to Catholicism". The Padaung are football crazy and the victorious

team is serenaded by a brass band playing Handel's "Hail the Conquering Hero

Comes". His cross-cultural referents are, Conrad-like, neatly reversed in his

account of Cambridge student pub culture expressed in Burmese jungle metaphors.

Admirable in style and fascinating as it is in social detail, this is much more important

than merely an elegantly written autobiography of an unusual individual. At times

it reads like a thriller and one has to remind oneself that this is someone's real

life and the suffering he escaped continues for many others. The book is instructive

for its eyewitness accounts of the internal repressions, massacres and suppression

of basic human rights; it evokes a moving picture of the horrific effects of Myanmar's

tyrannical regime on the lives of ordinary people. This book is certainly no ideological

polemic however. Its detached tone and sober prose are integral to its impact and

his disillusionment with the petty divisions among his excluded contemporaries is

one of the saddest things about this record.

I can think of no better primer on the recent history of Burma. You will learn far

more about this troubled land from this book than you could from any visit.

From the Land of Green Ghosts is available at Monument Books, $27 (hard cover

editon).

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