Myanmar: The Land of Green Ghosts

“If someone was murdered or died in an accident, this was categorised as a ‘raw death’. The belief was that the deceased would become a ‘green ghost’ – the most feared of all the spirits.”

From:   From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe


The current persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar has catapulted the country into international news, and is the result of a complex regional history in a country that is made up of more than 135 different ethnic groups. This ethnic minority (although not recognized as such by the government), were classed as “foreigners” in 1978, effectively stripping them from any claim to citizenship. Two recently published books shed light on the history and background of this issue: Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’ by Francis Wade; and The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide by Azeem Ibrahim, and are worth a read, if you are interested in gaining insight into this complex state of affairs.

This is only the most recent incidence of violence, not just against the Rohingya, but touching everyone in the country in some way. Myanmar, as we know it geographically today, is mainly the result of British colonization (1824-1948), which brought together various independent territories. In an effort to free themselves from British rule, help was sought from the Japanese, but instead of gaining freedom, it resulted in a brutal occupation during WW2. After WW2, there was a short-lived and precarious flirtation with freedom and self-rule, but it was violently squashed by a military coup in 1962, which resulted in a dictatorship that lasted until very recently. Aung San Suu Kyi, and her ruling party, have brought the dream of democracy closer to a reality, since the November 2015 elections, but for the people of Myanmar, the concepts of true freedom, and true peace, are still fairly elusive.

Over the years, various ethnic minorities have fought guerilla wars against the military government to gain independence and restore self-rule, without much success. People (including women and children) caught in the middle of these were often forced to work for free for the government on various projects, through a system labeled “donated labour”, or used as porters or shields in the skirmishes. In some instances, rebel army commanders have become rich and powerful drug lords, making Myanmar the largest opium producer after Afghanistan.

But violence and oppression seem to hark back much further, and King Thibaw, the last ruler in Mandalay, who was described by Scott as “the most inhuman of a long line of savage despots”, is just one example of a ruler striking fear in the hearts of his subjects. His father, King Mindon, when he moved his court from Ava to Mandalay, had fifty-two people buried alive beneath its walls in the belief that their ghosts will guard the city against evil forces.

A very different kind of danger stems from the leftover legacy of both the British and Japanese presence in Myanmar in that cars have right-hand steering wheels. On the apparent advice of his personal astrologer, or so one story goes, General Ne Win (military dictator from 1962-1988), decreed in 1970 that motorists should drive on the right. This effectively means that drivers cannot see the oncoming traffic, unless they veer all the way left, right into the lane of oncoming traffic, to see if they can overtake, which, for obvious reasons is rather dangerous. On quiet country roads, with hardly any traffic, the problem seems minor, but in congested Yangon, with the added stress of too many cars, it is a terrifying reality. I quickly learned that the best strategy was to sit behind the driver, and keep my eyes focused on the countryside or passing buildings, instead of the road. This anomaly should change in the near future, though, as the government has banned, in principle, the import of right-hand vehicles from January.

Despite its history steeped in violence, Myanmar is a land of great beauty, and friendly people, who are remarkably resilient, and extremely welcoming to visitors. It is the words of an older gentleman, who I encountered in Bagan that I treasure the most from my time there. He wanted to know where I was from, and after a short conversation, looked me in the eye, and said: “Thank you for visiting Myanmar”. In times of upheaval, tourists tend to stay away, and it is the ordinary people, who rely on the tourist industry to make ends meet, who suffer the most.




# To throw pearls before swine: ‘to play a harp for a water buffalo’.

# To blow your own trumpet: ‘to praise the pickling of your own fish’.

# To bask in someone else’s glory: ‘to lean on the sacred white elephant and suck sugar cane’.


Words to learn:

Mingalaba  – hello (literally translates as ‘it’s a blessing’ or ‘auspiciousness to you’)

Che zu ba – thank you


Books to Read:

  1. From the Land of Green Ghosts – A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe
  2. The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U
  3. A Burmese Heart by YMV Han and Tinsa Maw-Naing
  4. Burma’s Spring: Real Lives in Turbulent Times by Rosalind Russel
  5. Under the Dragon: A Journey through Burma by Rory Maclean
  6. Burmese Days – George Orwell
  7. Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
  8. Burma: A Journey Across Time by Matt Sims
  9. The Trouser People – Burma in the Shadows of the Empire by Andrew Marshall
  10. The Burman: His Life and Notions by James George Scott
  11. Greetings from Myanmar: Exploring the Price of Progress in One of the Last Countries on Earth to Open for Business by David Bockino
  12. Children of the Revolution by Feroze Dada
  13. Burmese Folk Tales by Maung Htin Aung
  14. Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’ by Francis Wade
  15. The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide by Azeem Ibrahim.

Remember that reading should always take context into consideration. These books all capture a very specific time in Myanmar’s history, and the conditions, beliefs, and way of doing things may no longer be relevant today. So take note, for instance, of when they were published.