From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey

by Pascal Khoo Thwe

Paperback, 2003




Harper Perennial (2003), Edition: Reprint, 336 pages


The autobiographical story of a young man's upbringing in a remote tribal village in Burma and his subsequent journey from his strife-torn country to the tranquil quads of Cambridge. Pascal Khoo-thwe describes his childhood and early days as a member of the Padaung hill tribe, where ancestor worship and communion with spirits blended with the tribe's recent conversion to Christianity. In the 1930s, Pascal's grandfather (and head of the clan) captured an Italian Jesuit, mistaking him for a giant or a wild beast; the Jesuit in turn converted the tribe.

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From the land of green ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey Pascal Khoo Thwe

3 stars

Pascal, alias Khun Sa, has created an interesting autobiography of his life as a Padaung Tribesman from the Shan States of Burma, who is picked up by a Cambridge don visiting Mandalay where he is a student. Then later finds his way to England and Cambridge after his stint as an anti-government rebel soldier – through the kindness and intervention of his British friend and the British embassy in Thailand.

He writes rather well in English when you consider that most of his youth was spent in Shan States of Burma where English was not his language. However, one can feel the strong hand of his English and religion instructors or perhaps his editor in the content of much of the book. His mentor, Dr. John Casey, admits in the foreword that he was ‘at first diffident’ when asked to revise and cut the manuscript for publication, yet his input can be felt strongly in the final version. Pascal points out in one of the final chapters that Dr. Casey indulged in nostalgia for the imperial past of Burma. This prejudice comes through clearly when Pascal writes of becoming an insurgent to fight against the Burmese government which had replaced the ‘golden age’ of the ‘old British Raj’. Burma/ Myanmar has been involved in a civil war ever since the British completed their occupation of the country and many of the rebel groups would like to have the country return to the British colonial era or become Communist. This feeling comes through as Pascal consistently characterizes the government soldiers of Burma as the ‘enemy’. His strong anti-government bias even comes through against the government of Thailand, which had protected him and his fellow insurgents in refugee camps there.

Pascal’s Grandmother is hauled out to amplify the anti-government screed and tell us what a paradise Burma was during the age of the rule by the British. She says: “We were prosperous under the British, but when they went, they took the prosperity with them.” She fails to point out that the British were replaced by the Japanese, who after a lot of killing were replaced by Nationalists looking for independence.

We learn early on that Pascal’s family introduced him to the Christian God and the Catholic Church. From that point on his writing is peppered with Christian religious euphemisms and often his religion causes him to rebel against the culture of his tribe. You can almost spot when Pascal is writing in the voice of his religious teachers; he uses words like ‘ululation’ “assiduous to novenas’ ‘impeccably’ or he pokes fun at his own culture and animist religion. When speaking in the voice of his Cambridge dons, he misses no opportunity to demonize the ‘regime’ in Burma.

When Pascal writes in his own voice he can be quite down-to-earth and when he writes of his time as a young rebel soldier, shooting and being shot at, he is quite believable. As a poetic lament the book seems to be coming from Pascal, but as a political statement it seems more to originate from his handlers.

No good anti-Burmese government book would be complete without a mention of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the wife of the late Michael Aris of Oxford. Pascal mentions her several times.

“from the land of the green ghosts’ is a fine book, if read with a good knowledge of the history of Burma. May I recommend reading “The River of Lost Footsteps” as a preliminary to this work.
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