Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sticking your neck out in Burma

Sticking your neck out in Burma

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).

MOST VIEWED

  • PM imposes nationwide Covid restrictions, curfew over Delta scare

    Prime Minister Hun Sen late on July 28 instructed the municipal and provincial authorities nationwide to strictly enforce Covid-19 measures including curfew for two weeks from July 29 midnight through August 12 to stem the new coronavirus Delta variant. The instruction came shortly after he issued a directive

  • Two luxury hotels latest quarantine options for inbound travellers

    The Inter-Ministerial Committee to Combat Covid-19 has designated two luxury hotels as alternative quarantine options for travellers who wish to enter Cambodia through Phnom Penh International Airport – Sokha Phnom Penh Hotel & Residence and the Courtyard by Marriott Phnom Penh. In a notice detailing guidelines issued

  • Visa A holders get to quarantine at Himawari Hotel

    The Ministry of Health has permitted foreign diplomats, UN and International NGO officials to undergo quarantine at Himawari Hotel in the capital in case they do not have a separate place suitable for this purpose, but the government would not be responsible for the expenses.

  • Provinces on Thai borders put in lockdown amid Delta fears

    The government has decided to place several border provinces in lockdown for two weeks in a bid to prevent the new coronavirus Delta variant spreading further into community. According a directive signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen late on July 28, the provinces include Koh Kong,

  • Jabs for kids bring hope for school reopenings

    Cambodia is tentatively planning to reopen schools – at least at the secondary level – when the vaccination of children aged 12-17 is completed, even though daily transmissions and deaths in other age groups remain high. Schools across the country have been suspended since March 20, one month

  • China denies Mekong hacking

    As the US and its allies joined hands last week to expose what they allege to be China’s Ministry of State Security’s malicious cyber activities around the world, the attention also turned to Cambodia with the US Department of Justice claiming that four