Pascal Khoo Thwe and the Book of Memory
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Pascal Khoo Thwe and the Book of Memory

By Edith Mirante MARCH, 2003 - VOLUME 11 NO.2

This astonishing autobiography details one young Padaung man’s upbringing in a remote village and his long journey through conflict-ridden Burma, all the way to freedom. From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey [Harper Collins, 2002] by Pascal Khoo Thwe is the Burma book I’ve been waiting for. An indigenous work of memory which captures exactly the magic—good and bad—that is always evident in Burma. This book emerges from a rich culture and a revolutionary movement. Depicting the life-trajectory of a young man in the 1988 diaspora, Green Ghosts is an intricate kalaga (tapestry) sewn with portraits of elders and comrades, with pleasures and tragedies. The author, Khoo Thwe, grew up in the extended family of a headman of the Kayan people in southern Shan State. He uses the more well-known Burmese term, "Padaung" (Long-necks) for his ethnic group throughout the book. The Kayans are best known for the women’s brass neck-rings, which create the effect of an elongated neck. Traditionally a source of female pride in their culture, the neck-rings attracted attention from outsiders as a freakish phenomenon. Khoo Thwe tells of village grandmothers who had been brought to England in 1936 to be exhibited in a circus. From the Kayan perspective, the English were equally a source of curiosity. The women returned with tales of tea-time rituals and England’s strange lack of rice wine. Later, Kayan women would be put on display in a more sinister setting, as hostages to tourism in a Thai refugee camp. With a veterinarian father and a mother who was a nurse from the Geba tribe, Khoo Thwe enjoys a comfortable childhood in a small mixed-ethnicity town. The boyhood scenes are reminiscent of the "marvelous reality" of South American novels, as the villagers deal with ghosts and omens, plant rice and gather tropical fruit. Catholicism mixes happily with pervasive Animism and coexists nicely with Buddhism, and neighborhood shamans share this fertile world with Elvis Presley songs on the shortwave. But all is not well, as Ne Win’s military government gradually impoverishes the family. Khoo Thwe’s grandfather, who had converted to Catholicism after a memorable wrestling match with a malarious Italian priest, defies the new authority of the police and Tatmadaw (armed forces). The grandfather is a heartbreaking example of those who stand against abusive power in Burma however they can. "They arrested my grandfather, cajoled, coaxed and threatened him. They beat him up, and arrested and brutalized some of his followers. In reply he uttered a traditional curse, the imprecations of which included condemning them to be eaten by maggots ... Grandpa then went to the cemetery with some shamans to inform his ancestors of the curse and invoke their support. With the shamans he held a ghost-raising ceremony." Eventually Khoo Thwe leaves the haven of his childhood for the relative chaos of Mandalay, where, he has been warned, fearsome "green ghosts" may lurk. He forms friendships with students from other ethnic groups, and falls in love with a Burman girl named Moe. The type of woman who will change Burma, Moe shifts between sandals and high heels and shifts from a military family into underground revolution. Green ghosts in the form of the Tatmadaw murder young Moe and relentlessly spill blood in Mandalay’s streets as 1988 unfolds. Like so many of his generation, Khoo Thwe takes to the hills in flight from the military crackdown of Sept 18, 1988. This middle-class town Padaung encounters a Burma he had never known and always feared. "The word ‘jungle’ still carried pejorative overtones in the speech of urban Burmese. Anyone taking refuge with the ethnic insurgents was called a ‘jungle child,’ which implied primitiveness, anarchy, violence and disease—as well as the unpleasant proximity of wild animals, which the Burmese detested. I had always been painfully sensitive about being regarded as part of a primitive tribe." This insight of Khoo Thwe’s expresses much about what has gone wrong in Burma, from genocide to disunity to environmental devastation. In spite of such ingrained prejudice, Khoo Thwe soon gives in to the enticements of the forest. "I felt the presence of the Nats and other spirits in this sacred place, and in the jungle. I wanted to stay longer to communicate with the spirits of the land and therefore the soul of the tribe. I knew I was in paradise, imperfect though it was, and I was bewitched by something out of my control. My feeling for the beauty of the place was also my sense of the real presence here of dryads and naiads, that the beguiling charm of the scene also revealed actual magic." Some of the book’s strongest writing ensues as he walks through the valley of death, learning first hand the truth of the war on rural ethnic people. He is gripped by horror, fatigue, pain, but still able to revel in the sweet taste of water in bamboo.

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