Toward the end of this captivating memoir the author confesses that while studying at Cambridge, “Sometimes I locked myself up in my room for three or four days, just to have a sense of what it was like to be imprisoned, and as a sort of penance for all my luckless friends who were locked up in noxious prisons in Burma.” This is the improbable and riveting tale of a Padaung hill tribesman who left his idyllic backwater to study in Mandalay and found himself caught up in the tumultuous political events of the day. It is awe-inspiring story of perseverance against incredible odds, leavened by the author’s humor and lyrical prose.
Thwe recalls the military coup d’etat in 1988: “There was one uncanny reaction to the coup-dogs that howled the whole night. The first sign of the new regime’s good intentions was not long in coming. That night the tanks rolled into the cities and massacred a thousand protesters.” So began the transformation of a naive student into a reluctant rebel fighting in the jungles of the Shan state against one of the world’s most notoriously brutal regimes.
He recalls rebels taunting the government soldiers about their widespread practice of coercing local villagers into forced labor. Told that they are volunteers, the rebels shout across the battlefield, “Pretty impressive that they volunteer to wear chains, volunteer to walk through minefields, volunteer to be blown to bits.”
The military has ruled over Burma, now renamed Myanmar, for four decades. The people have been impoverished by their misrule and squandering of resources. Under Ne Win (president from 1962-1988), “The poor became worse off, as did government employees such as my father. Contrary to the official philosophy of the Burma Socialist Programme Party, with its claim to end ‘the exploitation of man by man,’ being poor meant that you were exploited by many — by corrupt officials, black marketeers and all those who exploited the system they had set up — and casually despised by your rulers.”
The current military junta carries on this insouciant disregard for its people, most notably in ignoring the 1990 landslide election victory of the National League for Democracy. They have imprisoned the people’s champion Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the NLD, knowing that everyone looks upon her as the nation’s legitimate ruler. Men who live in fear of the people can only rule by fearful means, explaining why sanctions have been imposed by the European Union, Canada and the United States. Japan, the largest donor nation, has frozen additional economic aid while the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has taken the unprecedented step of censuring one of its members for conduct unbecoming.
Thwe excelled in his studies and won a place at Mandalay University, where he confides that he felt, “like a messenger to the world of the dead, because to the Padaung, as to many of the hill people, Central Burma is an alien land, the abode of evil spirits, green ghosts and the like — not to mention the Burmans themselves, whom we regarded almost without exception as liars cheats and Machiavellian schemers.”
He supported his studies by working as a waiter and recalls his first impressions of visiting tourists: “I saw massive, sweaty bodies lumbering into our restaurant like white buffaloes who had just completed a day’s ploughing in the fields. The women seemed only half-dressed and — biggest shock of all — they displayed rough body hair (I noticed that especially among Germans and Israelis). Whatever perfume they wore, foreign white tourists seemed to exude a pungent and unpleasant body smell.”
We also learn about Padaung village life where people live in a “ghost culture.” He writes, “The myths do not just remind us of the ancestors, or teach us about them — they make our lives and those of our ancestors contemporaneous. Through our daily activities and ceremonies, and in the telling of these stories, our past is alive to us, and we can talk to those who went before.”
Boys learn to look for edible insects — hornets, baby wasps, dung-hill beetles and green caterpillars — and later choose a wife for her skill in making rice wine. Readers discover why the so-called “giraffe women” of his tribe wear rings around their elongated necks, that Elvis Presley was universally admired and how to cook smoked pigeon in marijuana sauce.
One can only marvel at the chain of events that led to the author becoming the first Padaung to earn a Cambridge degree, thanks to his rescue by John Casey. Although the author is a guilty survivor and saddened by his forced exile, he also appreciates his incredible luck: “What were the odds against my meeting a couple in a Chinese restaurant in Mandalay, talking to them about James Joyce, so that I 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 that as a result of my writing to him from the jungle he brought me to England.”
The spirits certainly chose a worthy soul to look over and he has repaid his debts by presenting us this magical and moving requiem for those who died for democracy.