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Stranger than Fiction

By Bertil Lintner

From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, by Pascal Khoo Thwe. HarperCollins Publishers. $24.95

What are the odds against a young university student from Burma's Padaung tribe--known for its "giraffe" women whose necks are artificially elongated by rings--meeting a Chinese couple in a restaurant in Mandalay and talking to them about James Joyce? The couple then meet a Cambridge don and tell him about the young Padaung student. On a whim, the British professor goes to the restaurant where the student works at night to pay for his studies, meets the tribesman, discusses Joyce's short-story collection, Dubliners, and is amazed by the tribesman's knowledge. The meeting changes the course of the young student's life.

Pascal Khoo Thwe relates the story of his life in his remarkable autobiography, From the Land of Green Ghosts, which must be one of the most gripping memoirs written by a young Asian in recent years.

After his meeting with the professor, John Casey, Pascal became involved in the 1988 popular movement for Burmese democracy. When the movement was crushed, Pascal's girlfriend, Moe, was raped and murdered by police. Pascal, like thousands of others, fled to the jungles along the Thai border.

From the jungle, he smuggled out a letter to Casey. A few months later, the professor showed up on the Thai border and took the young Burmese with him back to England, where he arranged for him to be admitted to a Cambridge college.

In an amazing twist of fate, a few weeks after his arrival in England, Pascal visited a private art gallery where he came face to face with a bust of his long-necked grandmother. The bust had been cast when, as a young woman in the 1930s, his grandmother was taken to England with a circus. As Pascal writes, he could not calculate the odds of such a confrontation: "Do we only talk of luck?"

Pascal grew up in a Padaung village in southern Shan state, where his world-view was a mixture of traditional tribal beliefs and the doctrine of Roman Catholicism. Christianity had been introduced to the area at the beginning of the 20th century by a wayward Italian missionary, initially captured by the Padaung and held in a pigsty. The tribe mistook him for an animal or a hairy ogre. But the missionary managed to persuade the tribesmen that he was human and eventually converted many of them, giving them names such as Pascal, Angelo and Pia.

Padaung legends and creation myths also formed part of Pascal's heritage. These had been passed on to his family by his grandmother--the one who had been taken to England for the "freak show."

Pascal entered the modern world when he went to further his studies in Mandalay, which to most foreign visitors was a sleepy, quaint little town. But to Pascal, it was a city, bigger than anything he had seen. Six years after sending Casey that letter from the jungle, Pascal graduated from one of Cambridge's most prestigious colleges.

His book gives unique insights into Burma's tribal and mainstream cultures--as well as its contemporary politics. It reflects modern Burma's tragedy, how the country's best and brightest have had to go into exile because the country's military rulers refuse to accept any challenge to their grip on power.

Left behind are "the green ghosts"--the most feared of all the spirits in Burma--of those who have been murdered or who have died other unnatural deaths.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, March 06, 2003

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