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[135] From the Land of Green Ghosts – Pascal Khoo Thwe

“First we gave him water and a drip, intending to take him to Maechongson hospital later, but while we were tending to other sick people, a villager gave him a hearty dinner out of compassion. The porter sat up contentedly against a tree after his meal and fell asleep. When we tried to wake him up, he was already dead. His digestive system could not absorb the food after he starved for so many days. He had been allowed to eat himself to death.” (221)

This is one of the several passages that puts me to tears.

Pascal’s childhood was bombarded with horrible memories and anecdotes under the military regime of Burma. Stricken by poverty, his family had to grow poppies for extra money to feed the numerous young siblings. Twice the military-controlled government demonetized the banknotes and left thousands without a penny. Being a member of a tiny, remote Burmese tribe, he experienced first-hand the ethnic insurgencies that plagued the country. In 1962, U Ne Win, who claimed that the unity of the country was in danger, seized power in an almost bloodless coup. When he set up a one-party system, he banned all other political parties, shut down independent newspapers, and outlawed all student organizations. Like in any Communist country, one is supposed to revel the leader and never question the authority. Pascal had soon learned that happiness, if it ever existed, was not to be taken for granted. Happiness was as frail as a candlelight in the dark, flickering with every wind that blew. Pascal found himself rebelling against lessons, obedience, and good citizenship at the expense of traditional teaching. He could not formulate the thought that education was being invaded by political brainwashing. That he was told what to say and how to breathe simply made him sick. Nor would he realize the inveterate impact of this military regime, which was marked by hostility toward educated people, would penetrate his study at Cambridge University later. For the liberal education encouraged him to form his own opinion and nothing could have been more opposed to the whole pattern of his previous mentality, let alone education.

In 1988, the tension in Rangoon culminated in a full-blown insurrection. A university student who had been gunned down allegedly by civilians with connection to the leaders caused the volcanic eruption of political rage. That without warning the soldiers opened fire indiscriminately–shooting directly at the crowd and the monks, whom are universally revered in Burma–made Pascal join the guerrilla force of the rebels. He was among the thousands who had fled into the jungle, hoping to bring down the regime in a coalition of urban Burmese and their former enemies, the ethnic minority rebels. The encounter with Professor John Casey was pure chance. It was amazing how he kept in contact with him through letters in the jungle. What were the odds against his meeting a couple from Bangkok in the Chinese restaurant he worked in Mandalay, talking to them about James Joyce and literature, so that he provoked the interest of a Cambridge don who met them the day before he came to Burma, and who on the spur of the moment decided to visit the restaurant, and then as a result of Pascal’s writing to him from the jungle John had brought him to England and urged his case on Caius College.

From the Land of Green Ghosts embraces an uncanny experience of a young man’s escape out of a military regime that would have at first appeared a long shot. The indomitable determination with which he forced himself to overcome put to shame those who quit at the smallest obstacle. The pricking sensitiveness and haunting consciousness with which he described his post-trauma symptoms–warped sense of physical safety, the encroaching uncertainty, humility and fear–are as daunting as his painful recollection of his turmoil.The book gives a fairly good understanding of Burmese history and how the emergence of a military dictatorship has still fettered the country today.

On Burma, Another Memoir

Chance encounter with a visiting professor from Cambridge changed the life of Pascal Khoo Thwe, a member of the remote Burmese tribe known for the giraffe-necked women. They struck up a scholarly correspondence that would take Pascal from the brutal hardships of guerrilla warfare to the hallowed world of Cambridge University. I just started the book which has a brief history of Burma–the rise of Burmese Socialist Programme Party and the Burma Nationalists, the latter being responsible for helping the Japanese Imperial Army invade Burma, hoping in reward for Burma’s independence.

In 1962 U Ne Win, claiming that the unity of the country was in danger, seized power in an almost bloodless coup. But he regarded himself as the Father of the Country, and made no distinction between his own and the national wealth. His regime was marked by hostility to educated people. When he set up the one-party system, he banned all other political parties, shut down independent newspapers, and outlawed all student organizations. All these helped army become the super-privileged body.

This is hardcore reading. It requires con-cen-tration! Not that I usually don’t concentrate when I’m reading…