Reviewed by Will Schwalbe, Editor-in-Chief, Hyperion Press
The book begins with a foreword by a Cambridge don, John Casey, who is to play a significant role in the story. On a visit to Burma, Casey hears about a waiter in a Chinese restaurant in Mandalay who loves James Joyce. It turns out that the waiter has read little Joyce, but, in Casey’s words, “did seem to understand the humor and the irony of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
After the meal, the waiter, Pascal Khoo Thwe, takes Casey back to his university and introduces him to friends there. For anyone who has traveled as a tourist, on business, or on a human rights mission, this kind of chance encounter is familiar. One of the things this book bring home with astonishing power is the way that these interactions can turn out to be a lifeline when situations deteriorate, and how they create bonds and webs of responsibilities and possibilities across borders patrolled by even the most ruthless governments.
The book opens with the author’s description of his family background and daily life growing up as a member of the Kayan (Paudaung) tribe in a town located in the Shan State. A useful and succinct history of Burma follows, enhanced by an evocation of some major rituals and stories of his tribe and a luminous description of village life replete with buffaloes, shamanism, soccer matches, and waking up to Paul Anka and the Beatles on the radio.
At thirteen, the author headed off to seminary, but decided he wasn’t cut out for the priesthood and determined to go to University instead. In 1984, age seventeen, he set out on the 375-mile trip to Mandalay, an immense journey in every way. “To me, Mandalay (a place which, as I later learned, foreign visitors enjoyed as a sleeply backwater that time forgot) was an amazing metropolis,” he writes.
When government tried to counter inflation by declaring most units of currency worthless, Burma was plunged into a dreadful financial situation. Many people lost everything, and the author was forced to interrupt his studies to earn money for tuition – which brought him to the job in the Chinese restaurant where he met John Casey.
In this section of the book, Pascal describes his love affair with an extraordinary Burman woman named Moe. This is when the author’s political consciousness was awakened. At first, his concern was solely that his university stay open. But profoundly affected by student demonstrations that erupted following the 1988 killing of a student in Rangoon and BBC reports of the slaughter of protesting students by riot police, he became politicized.
Then his fiancée, Moe, who, unbeknownst to the author, had been an “underground freedom fighter,” was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured (including a savage beating and gang rape). Her torturers told her: “This is what you get if you ask for ‘democracy’ and fucking freedom.” The author tried to help her regain her broken health and spirit, but two weeks later she “vanished.” Her body was never found. The authorities informed her mother that Moe died “from natural causes” while in confinement.
The author traveled back to his village, but was unable to reconcile his feelings upon his return to scenes of his childhood security with his devastation over what he had witnessed in Mandalay; not just Moe’s murder but a slaughter of peaceful protesters he had seen first-hand. He listened assiduously to BBC World Service and every night took his grief to bed, where he describes himself lying “like a corpse.” But soon he determined to work for change in Burma, no matter what it will cost him and despite the initial entreaties of his father to leave politics “to Burmans.”
His first political speech preceded by less than one month the coup d’etat that put into power SLORC, the illegal government that controls Burma to this day, now under the name State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
Next the author recounts a period of student organizing and his escape into the jungle during which the Burmese military hunted him and other students like animals. Hundreds, including the author, survived enormous hardship and danger to find their way to parts of the country on the Thai border controlled by Karen guerillas who had been fighting for decades for an independent state. There, the students trained and joined in the fight against the military; many were killed by mines, by mortars, in battle, and by malaria and dysentery.
From this military camp, thanks to a visiting Western journalist, the author smuggled a letter to John Casey, the don he had met in the restaurant. Casey followed up with money, books, and eventually helped the author travel from the Thai border to the British Embassy in Bangkok. There is a wonderful description of the Ambassador himself escorting the author to the same suite of rooms in which the Queen had stayed. Also staying at the Embassy was Michael Aris with the two sons he had with his wife, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Soon after, the author was on a flight to England. Then he spent years in Cambridge where he was the first Padaung ever to go to Western University and the first Burmese to gain an honors degree in English literature from Cambridge.
The description of life at Cambridge is short, but it manages to convey the author’s sense of dislocation, his frequent battles with depression, his guilt at leaving his comrades behind, and the sense of responsibility he felt to excel, which drained much of his pleasure from his accomplishments. This section is an important reminder of how difficult it can be for refugees to reconcile awareness of their good fortune with their knowledge of the horrors they left behind, and the often agonizing sense of responsibility they feel to do more than they possibly can to help improve the situation back home.
This memoir is as beautifully written as The Liar’s Club and Angela’s Ashes. But it does so much more than those two worthy books – it puts a human face on the victims of the atrocities perpetrated by the generals who have taken over a remarkable and varied country; it inspires with its descriptions of individual students who sacrificed everything to try to bring about change; and it shows how communication (the Burma Section of BBC World Service), courageous local leaders (Aung San Suu Kyi), and concerned and informed outsiders (John Casey) can provide inspiration, hope, and a lifeline for an individual, who, in turn, can help educate the world.