After living for 24 years in exile, Pascal Khoo Thwe, a Burmese author known for his autobiography, “From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey,” is now visiting the country of his birth. He is an ethnic Karen and his 2002 book is about growing up in Burma under military rule. It was awarded the Kiriyama Prize, an international literary award given to books which will encourage greater understanding of and among the peoples and nations of the Pacific Rim and South Asia. He recently spoke to The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Phyo Tha about his return to Burma.
Question: As a native Burmese returning after many years in exile, is there anything about what you’ve seen here that surprises you ?
Answer: I see freedom here but it’s only in its infancy. What makes me surprised is the media coverage of issues like the conflict in Kachin state. I have to say they report quite thoroughly on the issue by adding voices from both sides—the Kachin and the government. Even though we see that kind of good sign, we shouldn’t stay where we are now. We have to keep pushing the government for more freedom.
Q: Some people are cautiously optimistic about the current reform process in Burma. They are worried about the possibility of backsliding, like the war in Kachin State. Do you share these concerns?
A: I’m worried because we have many problems at all levels of society. I’m concerned not just because I’m an ethnic Karen. Based on what we’ve seen in other countries, we can assume that it will take some time for society to heal completely. I want the fighting in Burma to stop so that the rehabilitation can begin.
Take what happened under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia or during the Cultural Revolution in China. Those in positions of power abused those with less power. But when it was all over, those who committed atrocities said, “We didn’t realize that what we were doing was wrong.” What I mean is that both parties—those who committed the atrocities and their victims—will suffer psychologically. That’s why I’m worried.
Q: What was your first reaction to the reforms?
A: I didn’t believe it. Even now I hardly believe it. I mean it. Now reform is underway only where it is urgently needed, but not in sectors where it should be. The leader of the reforms isn’t making the most of his chance; instead he’s doing what he is asked to do. It’s not good enough.
Q: Tell me about your homecoming trip.
A: This is actually my second time back in the country. I first visited Burma in July of last year after 24 years in exile. I also went to my home village. I’m thinking about renovating my grandfather’s house.
Q: Has there been any change in your village?
A: Yes, it’s changed a lot physically. I came to realize that the people there have real stoic endurance. That’s how they survived all those years of government repression. Now they are being reborn, both physically and emotionally. I think that makes them unique. They have really earned my respect. I’m looking for some way to do something for them.
Q: Does that mean you plan to start a development project for the village?
A: I have a plan to be involved in development projects, not just for my village. I want to be engaged in other issues as best as I can. I’m not interested in taking any leadership role at this moment. I don’t even know what position I’m now in. Even if you have big ideas, they don’t always turn out as you plan. So I’m taking my time to contemplate it from every angle. You can say that this is my assessment trip.
Q: So no more writing?
A: I’ll continue to write, but I’m poor in time. I have lots of ideas. I’m thinking about working on a sequel of “From the Land of Green Ghosts.” Plus, I want to write about the food of the Burmese countryside—let’s say a kind of jungle cookbook. I also would like to pen a family saga, based on three generations. I will keep writing in English, because I’m not good at typing in Burmese. If I type in Burmese, I have to struggle to find the right key, and by the time I find it, the idea I was thinking about is gone.
I’m also interested in the hardships people face. Writing about this will be good for our future generations, as they can learn from the experiences of those who came before them. As for the sequel, I can’t say when it will be available. I still need to do some research, which will take time. Apart from doing research, there must be a publisher. Taking all of this into account, it could takes years to come out.
Q: Your autobiography is now freely available in Burma. How do you feel about that?
A: I’m thrilled and proud to see that my book is now for sale in bookshops [in Burma]. There was a time when people here could only read my book secretly, but now those days are over. Some of my readers have asked for a Burmese translation of the book. I want someone who knows both Burmese and English to translate it.