Sticking your neck out in Burma
From the Land of Green Ghosts
by Pascal Khoo Thwe
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
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