Country Focus: Burma (Myanma in Burmese)
From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey
By Pascal Khoo Thwe
Originally published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002.
My edition: Flamingo, 2003.
Acclaim: Winner of the 2002 Kiriyama Prize for Nonfiction
Time period: 1967-2001
To make a long story short: Pascal Khoo Thwe grew up in the remote hill country with his Padaung tribe. Ensconced in myth and traditional ways, he nevertheless decided to attend university in the bustling town of Mandalay and study English. While waiting tables in a restaurant, he happened to meet Dr. John Casey, a Cambridge University professor. The two hit it off and began a regular correspondence.
As Thwe personally witnessed the brutal and repressive actions of Burma’s government, he began to speak out about its injustice. His dissent endangered his life. He fled deep into the jungle bordering Thailand and joined the rebel forces. Thwe continued to write letters to Casey, who miraculously orchestrated the young man”s escape to England and enrolled him at Cambridge University.
The beliefs we absorbed about the West strangely resembled the fantastic stories early Western travelers sent back about the Mysterious East. One teacher at school had told us that in the West things were so advanced that pigs could be grown on trees, and that a type of furniture had been developed that could be eaten if ever food supplies ran low. He also explained to us that the West got so cold in winter that if you peed outdoors the urine would instantly freeze so that you had to snap it like a stick. We had a pretty good sense that these were tall tales – but they made better listening than the equally tall tales of the regime. When we learned that the Americans got to the moon, for instance, we had solemnly been informed by a fanatical socialist-nationalist teacher : ‘Our ancestors got there centuries ago on the astounding flying machines that the genius of the Burmese had perfected – secrets alas now lost.’ We learned something important from all this: that the Burmese, after nearly thirty years of isolation from the rest of the world, constantly subject to official propaganda urging them to detest and despise the West, were in fact fascinated by the Western way of life and ignorantly credulous about it.
The armchair travel experience: From the Land of Green Ghosts presents one of the widest-ranging depictions of country I’ve come across so far for this project. Thwe starts off relaying the traditional lifestyle and beliefs of his Padaung village, including the “green ghosts” (spirits of people who had been murdered or who had died in an accident) referred to in the book’s title. He recounts a diet very different from mine – one of his most unusual meals is smoked pigeons with marijuana sauce. He adroitly weaves in history and politics, including the vestiges of British colonialism, General Ne Win’s military rule, the hope engendered by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and the civil war being fought by Karenni rebels in the jungle .
The author’s relationship to Burma:
Pascal Khoo Thwe was born in Phekhon, Burma in 1967. With the help of Dr. John Casey, he emigrated to England in 1989. From the Land of Green Ghosts is his memoir.
My opinion: Thwe has written a compelling memoir. From the Land of Green Ghosts is so jam-packed with tidbits about Burmese culture, and Thwe’s life is so vast in scope that I felt like I was reading a National Geographic story written by Forrest Gump’s Burmese counterpart.
One of the aspects of Thwe’s life that I found both fascinating and troubling was his struggle during his Cambridge studies to form personal opinions about a subject or a person – that the suppression of freedom of thought he experienced in Burma effectively eliminated (not merely smothered) his ability to be critical.