From war to Waugh via the Cam

The Land of Green Ghosts

January 17, 2003

Referring to Burma, the latest edition of Internally Displaced People: A Global Survey gives a chilling report. "The human rights situation in the border areas of Burma is considered one of the worst in the world, characterised by counter-insurgency operations directly targeting civilians, forced labour, restrictions on farming, and land confiscation. There are regular reports of torture, arbitrary executions, sexual violence, forced recruitment by both government and armed opposition forces, and the indiscriminate use of landmines with the purpose of making areas uninhabitable."

From the Land of Green Ghosts - dedicated to nine young friends of the author killed by the Burmese regime - puts flesh on the bare bones of such reports, including the Burmese army's coercion of chained civilians as human mine detectors and shields. In its later stages, the book is a riveting and horrific eyewitness account of the long-running war on Burma's border with Thailand, written by a student from Mandalay University who in desperation joined the rebels fighting the military government in Rangoon after the government's brutal suppression of the democracy movement in 1988. But the book offers vastly more than politics and war. In its first half, Pascal Khoo Thwe describes his profoundly traditional, ghost-ridden upbringing as a Padaung tribesman in the remote mountains of eastern Burma; his attempt to become a Catholic priest at a seminary in the nearest large town; his extraordinary decision to study English literature in Mandalay; and why he eventually came to reject the brainwashing of the Burmese regime, abandoned his studies and large family, and disappeared into the jungle.

The last part brings him to Cambridge University, rescued from almost-inevitable death through bullets or disease by a generous Cambridge don, John Casey, who had visited Burma as a guest of the government in 1988 and serendipitously encountered Khoo Thwe in Mandalay when he was a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. After much struggle and anxiety about failure, in 1995 he became the first Burmese to gain an honours degree in English literature from Cambridge.

The effect is a kind of spiritual autobiography, a modern odyssey (as justifiably claimed in the book's subtitle). Parts of it bring to mind Nirad C. Chaudhuri's classic of late-colonial Indian life, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian . But, like all great works, From the Land of Green Ghosts is unique, incomparable: by turns (and often all in one page) it is informative, concrete, poetic, grotesque, humane and moving - no wonder Evelyn Waugh is a favourite of the author. And in addition, throughout one's reading one cannot but be awed by the author's Conradian command of English, picked up mainly since his escape from Burma a decade ago. From the Land of Green Ghosts has already won a major prize, and it will definitely become a classic of modern Burmese life. It is one of the most compelling books I have read for many years.

Quotation is irresistible. On one memorable occasion, the Karenni rebels capture two probable infiltrators who have passed themselves off as civilian porters escaping from the Burmese army. They beat them severely but obtain no information. Finally, they call their allies from the Wa tribe, known for their reputation as cannibals, who come eagerly carrying their cooking pots and pans. After "pinching and pulling the men's skins in a professional way to decide how edible they were... the Was began conferring, discussing the finer points of human flesh with ever-increasing excitement. After all, they were being offered a real feast. Eventually they agreed to take the one with less fat on him. The targeted man began to protest and to plead with the Karenni not to let the Was eat him. His pleas for mercy were ignored, and finally he pointed to his companion: 'He is my captain. I am only his soldier. Eat him if you must, I will tell you everything.' (It stood to reason, of course, that the fatter one would prove to be an officer.) The rebels had what they wanted. They told the Was that this had all been a charade, that they had no intention of encouraging cannibalism, and that they had only been trying to discover whether the two really were spies." Despite bitter complaints from the Was, the rebels refused them their promised dinner. "I was extremely relieved, for I had not been sure that it had really been a charade. I had been witnessing a necessary cruelty, but I was glad that the Karenni still knew where to draw the limits." The two captives gave useful information about the dispositions of the attacking Burmese army, and decided to join the rebels themselves.

A year or two on, the author was in Cambridge, wrestling with the finer points of Spenser, Milton and Donne. It is hard to imagine a more wrenching translation between cultures. As Casey notes in his foreword to the book:

"[Pascal] writes with the point of view both of a member of a Bronze-Age, newly literate tribe and of someone who in the end managed to receive a western education at a famous English university." One of the peculiar effects was that whereas in Mandalay, with virtually no access to books, Khoo Thwe was passionate about English literature, settled in Cambridge, surrounded by books and knowledgeable teachers, "reading became a duty". But ultimately, his love affair with English carried him through: having received a third class in part one of the exams, he went on to a second class in his finals with a first class for his original composition (which became the nucleus for this book) - the only such first to be given in that year.

Of course, the nightmare of his experiences in the jungle will never leave him. In the midst of taking finals, flicking through a newspaper in his college common room, he was deeply shocked to discover that two of the friends he had left behind had been gunned down in Burma by the pro-government militia. One of them had told him bluntly when he left for Cambridge: "You will forget us altogether." Guilty and confused, Khoo Thwe had replied: "I will be able to let people outside know what is happening to us. If I get an education, I will be able to write about it in a way that will move people." And this is true: anyone reading this book must surely be moved by the plight of this magical but impoverished country. Even - dare one hope? - the more enlightened members of Burma's calamitous military regime.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES .

The Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey

Author - Pascal Khoo Thwe
ISBN - 0 00 711681 0
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £17.99
Pages - 304

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