Children's TV host Fred Rogers
His popular show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was the longest-running program on public television. It ran 33 years and ended its run in 2001. Rogers is the author of the new book, The Mister Rogers Parenting Book: Helping to Understand Your Young Child. (Running Press). Earlier this year, Rogers was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor the nation can bestow.
Other segments from the episode on November 13, 2002
DATE November 13, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Fred Rogers talks about his life, his long-running
PBS show and his new book, "The Mister Rogers Parenting Book"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
Even if you didn't grow up watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," you
probably know your way around it pretty well. From 1968 on, it's been that
other-worldly oasis on public television, where the kind man in the cardigan
talks to toddlers about their feelings, their fears of the dark and takes them
on trips to see how crayons are made. And then there's the Neighborhood of
Make-Believe, a land of puppet shows and mini-operas, populated by King Friday
the XIII and Lady Elaine.
With his sneakers, his absolutely sincere and leisurely speech and the
unabashedly corny songs, Mr. Rogers invited parodies, and there were many.
But as the novelist and Mr. Rogers fan Richard Ford once wrote, `Who but a
hardened criminal wouldn't like Fred Rogers?'
Last year, after 33 years on the air, Fred Rogers taped his final episode, but
the show lives on in reruns. He continues his work with children through his
non-profit organization, Family Communications, Inc., and he has a new book on
understanding the young child, called "The Mister Rogers Parenting Book."
Fred Rogers joins us today from his studio in Pittsburgh. You should know
he's sitting at his piano.
Fred Rogers, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's such a pleasure.
Mr. FRED ROGERS (Author, "The Mister Rogers Parenting Book"): Thank you,
BOGAEV: You write about a lot of everyday things. You also write about some
pretty profound issues in parenting, about children's fears. I'm remembering
a show you once did about how a child cannot go down the drain in the bathtub.
You had a whole show about that.
Mr. ROGERS: Oh, yes.
BOGAEV: It sounds funny, but you're really meeting kids on their own level.
That's a real fear. Did a child write to you, and is that where you got the
idea for that?
Mr. ROGERS: A child played that out in front of me one time, making a
character, trying to see if that character could go down a tube, you know,
just a plain, ordinary tube, and I found out that it had to do with the drain
in the bathtub. That child was petrified when his parent pulled the plug
while he was still in the tub, and so consequently, we wrote a song about
that, you know.
(Sings) `You can never go down, can never go down, can never go down the
And then it goes on, `You're much bigger than the water, much bigger than the
soap,' and its true, and children don't know that when they hear this loud
rush of the flush of water in the bathroom. They think they might be sucked
down the drain, and so just to talk about it, I mean, people were very
surprised that I would show a bathtub drain, as well as a toilet drain, and
just say, `See? You could never go down such a small thing.' Well, there were
many children, I think, who breathed a sigh of relief, just to be able to talk
BOGAEV: Can we talk about discipline for a moment? You hear a lot that
parents aren't disciplining their children enough now, that they're not
setting limits and they're not being consistent about rules that they do have.
Is that your experience, looking back over your long work with kids? Are more
parents dropping the ball on disciplining their children?
Mr. ROGERS: You know, Barbara, discipline is a kind of love. If children
didn't have limits from those who cared about them, they would never feel that
they were loved. If a child ran out into the street, for instance, and nobody
screamed and says, `Come back!' or nobody ran after that child, that child
would think that nobody loved him. So healthy limits, which children
understand, are a marvelous way of saying `I care about you.'
I don't know about the numbers of people who give comfortable limits to their
children anymore. I know that my grandchildren receive them all the time, but
things that are clear--if children know why we're asking them to do things,
they often are very happy to do them, especially if they feel that it is
consistent with our family values. Children love to belong, and if they know
that this is the way our family does things, then they'll want to be part of
BOGAEV: At the end of the day--and I mean that both literally and
figuratively as a parent--what I find hardest is not losing my temper. Now
you, at least as Mr. Rogers in the neighborhood, never lost your temper, but
were you like that as a parent? You had two sons. You know, after a long day
in the neighborhood, what would set you off?
Mr. ROGERS: You know, I have a very modulated way of dealing with my anger,
and I never felt that it was to anybody's advantage to scream and yell at
people. I think--oh, sure, sure I'd get angry, but there were ways that I had
of dealing with my anger, like...
(Soundbite of piano playing)
Mr. ROGERS: You know, I'd go to the piano and let it out. And also, I'm a
daily swimmer, and I notice that people who have a regime of exercise have
wonderful ways of dealing with their feelings. And I don't mean that it's not
appropriate for people to express anger in loud ways, but I am saying that it
doesn't help anybody if you don't let them know through words.
I mean, children are going to mimic what the adults in their lives do, and so
the kinds of ways that you have of expressing your anger will probably the
kinds of ways that your children will express theirs, and that's not all bad.
But I do think that it's very important for us to be up front with our
children, and give them words for their feelings. That's why...
(Sings) `What do you do with the mad that feel when you feel so mad you could
You know, that's one of the songs that we sing in the neighborhood a lot.
Anger can be very frightening.
BOGAEV: Now somewhere I read that your wife said you were always so
incredibly stoic and patient with your children, but that she yelled like a
fishmonger, so she ended up being the disciplinarian, the ogre.
Mr. ROGERS: She was never an ogre, and those two sons of ours are crazy
about her. In fact, she's off playing a concert right now in Atlanta.
BOGAEV: She's also a pianist, a concert pianist.
Mr. ROGERS: She is. She's part of a two-piano team. But Joanne is a very
real person, and she would never have been an ogre. She would have been up
front with exactly what she thought, told the kids, `OK, that's it, cut it
out,' you know, and she gave them very comfortable limits, so they knew what
was acceptable and what wasn't, and I backed her up.
BOGAEV: Fred Rogers is my guest. He's the longtime host of the children's
television show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on PBS.
I have to ask you about the sweaters, and I'm sure you were asked about the
sweaters that you wore on the show many, many times, but I understand your
mother knitted most of them, until her death.
Mr. ROGERS: She did. Mother was a great knitter. She would carry her
knitting bag wherever she went, and she made a sweater a month, and at
Christmastime she would give 12 sweaters to this sort of extended family of
ours, and invariably she would say, `OK, here's your sweater for Christmas,
and here's the pattern book. Tell me which one you want for next year. Of
course, I know the one Freddie wants. He wants the one with the zipper down
the front.' Well, I have all of those sweaters, and we used every one that she
ever made for me. But that's been kind of a trademark, hasn't it, the sweater
and the sneakers?
The sneakers came about because I had to run across the studio floor to get
from the puppet set to the organ when I was doing "The Children's Corner," and
so the sneakers just became--you know, I didn't want to make a lot of noise by
running in other shoes.
BOGAEV: I'm speaking with Fred Rogers, who's, of course, the longtime host of
the children's television show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on PBS. He has a
new book; it's called "The Mister Rogers Parenting Book."
Fred Rogers, we're going to take a short break, and then we're going to talk
some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: I'm talking with Fred Rogers, the longtime host of the children's
television show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on PBS.
What were you like as a kid?
Mr. ROGERS: I was an only child for 11 years, Barbara, and I had to make up
a lot of my own fun.
BOGAEV: I think you were sickly often, right? You had a lot of childhood
Mr. ROGERS: I had every imaginable childhood disease, even scarlet fever,
and so whenever I was quarantined--and you know, they used to quarantine
people for chicken pox and all of those things--I would be in bed a lot, and I
certainly knew what it was like to use the counterpane as my neighborhood of
make believe, if you will. But I had puppets...
BOGAEV: You mean, the window? You would use--What?--finger puppets or shadow
puppets, or what?
Mr. ROGERS: And things on the bed. I would put up my knees and they would
be mountains, you know, covered with the sheet, and I'd have all these little
figures moving around, and I'd make them talk. And I can still see my room,
and I'm sure that was the beginning of a much later neighborhood of make
believe. But to...
BOGAEV: Was King Friday the XIII one of your childhood characters, or Lady
Aberlin or Lady Elaine?
Mr. ROGERS: The king probably had his genesis there, but it wasn't that
particular name because it was a child who helped us form that name, King
Friday the XIII. A child had been told that Friday the XIII was a very bad
day, and he was afraid of those Friday the 13ths, and so I just said one time,
`Why don't we have a character whose name is Friday the XIII, and he
celebrates his birthday every time a Friday lands on the 13th of the month.
BOGAEV: Oh, that's so unfair!
Mr. ROGERS: And so his birthday, King Friday's birthday, is always Friday
the 13th. And I hear from people all over the world, you know, it's a joyous
occasion for us. It might be otherwise for those who haven't been enlightened
by the neighborhood, but...
(As King Friday) This is King Friday the XIII. I must explain a few things to
Yes, you're certainly welcome, King Friday.
(As King Friday) Friday the 13th is a fine day, and may you not say otherwise.
(Soundbite of piano flourish)
BOGAEV: Oh, it's taking me back. Now a gal...
Mr. ROGERS: (As Lady Elaine) This is Lady Elaine, toots. You asked about
me, and I'm mighty glad you did. Have you ever been to my Museum-Go-Round?
Well, you'll find everything that you could ever want in any one of those
(As X the Owl) This is X the Owl. You seem to be speechless, Barbara.
BOGAEV: So true.
Mr. ROGERS: (As X the Owl) I'm just flying around here looking for you.
Mr. ROGERS: (As X the Owl) Now there's Daniel Tiger over there at his clock.
Did you want to say hello to him? I mean, he's awful shy.
Mr. ROGERS: (As Daniel Tiger) Well, I am shy, but I would like to say that
I'm glad you're having FRESH AIR.
BOGAEV: Oh, thank you for that. So is that how you spent the weeks when you
were in your bed as a kid, making up voices?
Mr. ROGERS: Yeah. Voices for puppets and all kinds of stories, and when I
was 11 years old, my sister came, and then I wasn't an only child anymore.
BOGAEV: Now I think I also read that you were overweight as a kid. Did kids
make fun of you, and is that part of what made you kind of a sensitive guy
before it was fashionable?
Mr. ROGERS: Yeah, maybe so. When I was probably in the fourth and fifth
grades, I was really quite fat, and it's the same way with my older grandson,
and just recently he did the same thing that I did when I started adolescence.
And he's just turned 13. He grew so fast and so tall that he is now quite
thin, just the way I am. You know, I weigh 143.
BOGAEV: So did you have ways of coping with being the outsider kid or--it
sounds like you were probably shy because of this.
Mr. ROGERS: Oh, yeah. Oh, I think I'm still shy. I was concerned about
coming to talk with you today. I want things to be right. I want them to be
good. I worry if I make big mistakes, and that's quite a burden at times.
But of course, it can help when you're doing work that you feel is so
BOGAEV: When you were in college, you studied music composition, and you also
got a degree in child development and you became an ordained Presbyterian
minister, but after all those--trying out, I guess, all those avocations, you
went back to TV after that. Why didn't you pursue any of those other
interests--music or the ministry?
Mr. ROGERS: Well, I feel that it's all wrapped up in what we do with the
neighborhood and what we do with all of the things that we publish, that every
part of who you are comes out in whatever assignment you have. But when I was
ordained in the church, the ordination read like this: `You are to continue
your work for families and children through the mass media,' so what better
than to have these different identities and be able to wrap them all in the
service of children and their families? I think that that's when I really
knew who I was, when--you know, I loved drama and I loved music, and I loved
puppetry, and I like television and I liked philosophy and religion. But the
moment I realized that all of those could be used in the service of children
and their families, that's when I knew who I was.
BOGAEV: Now did you have a model for your Mr. Rogers persona, the perfect
adult, someone you knew, maybe your father, or your grandfather?
Mr. ROGERS: Well, my Grandfather McFeely used to say things to me, the kinds
of things that I would say to the children on the air. We would visit him at
his farm. Every Sunday we'd go out there for dinner.
BOGAEV: McFeely as in Mr. McFeely on your show.
Mr. ROGERS: Exactly, yeah. And that's my middle name, and that was my
mother's maiden name. But we would go to his farm for dinner on Sunday, and
invariably, he's take us for a walk around the grounds and say things like,
`I'm so glad that you've come.' And when we'd leave, he would say, `You've
made this day a special day,' things like that, you know--`Just your being
yourself is what matters to me,' and he would take me fishing. And he was a
BOGAEV: Fred Rogers. His new book is "The Mister Rogers Parenting Book."
We'll continue our conversation in the second half of the show. I'm Barbara
Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Coming up, pranks and spoofs. We continue our conversation with Fred
Rogers about his popular children's show on PBS. He has a new book for
parents. Also, fighting for democracy in Burma. We meet Pascal Khoo Thwe.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Let's continue our interview with Fred Rogers. After 33 years hosting the
children's show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on PBS, he taped his last
episode last year. Now the show lives on in reruns. This summer, Fred Rogers
received a Presidential Medal of Freedom award for his work with children. He
has a new book, "The Mister Rogers Parenting Book."
You worked with the people on your show for decades. Many of them stayed for
decades, right? And I was thinking that when people work together on a
television show for so long, they often play some practical jokes on each
other on the air just to keep things interesting. What kinds of pranks
happened on the set of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"? Did they ever, you
know, sprinkle itch powder in your sweater or anything?
Mr. ROGERS: No, but there were times when they put rolled-up newspaper in the
toes of my shoes, so that when I was singing the goodbye song, I would try to
get on my shoes and, of course, they were much too small for me to get into.
So the camera didn't show the shoes those days, and I was going out with my
heels over the backs.
And then one time there was this blown-up voluptuous lady made out of rubber,
a huge one, in my closet. When I opened it at the end of the program to put
my sweater back in the closet, here was this lady waiting for me.
BOGAEV: What did you do?
Mr. ROGERS: Well, we taped it over. But you couldn't do that in the days of
live television and, of course, that's the way we began. We began a daily
program an hour a day live, and we did that for eight years, and that was
called "The Children's Corner" with Josie Carey. And I did the puppets and
the music for that program, and it was all ad-lib and live, and a most
wonderful way of learning how to talk when the red light went on.
BOGAEV: I have to get you to tell this story. I understand once the actor
Michael Keaton was on your show.
Mr. ROGERS: Oh, yes.
BOGAEV: You had many celebrities on the show, but he made a little bit more
mischief than most.
Mr. ROGERS: Michael worked with us on the studio crew before he ever went to
Hollywood, and he was in charge of the trolley, the movement of the trolley in
my room, and also Picture, Picture. And there's a little sliding door right
under Picture, Picture where I put in the tape, and so...
BOGAEV: This is the magic picture projector, right?
Mr. ROGERS: It is a projector, yeah.
BOGAEV: It has a slot.
Mr. ROGERS: Uh-huh. And one day I opened the slot to put the tape in, and I
heard this voice say, `I'm ready to hear your confession, son.' Well, that
was Michael. And those were the kinds of things that--well, he's just a
BOGAEV: There have been many spoofs of "Mister Rogers," as I'm sure you know,
over the years. Eddie Murphy's on "Saturday Night Live" is perhaps the
best-known spoof. I remember National Lampoon also had a skit based on your
show. What did you think of those? How did you feel about the ribbing you
got over the years?
Mr. ROGERS: I think most of them were done with a great deal of affection. I
remember meeting Eddie Murphy for the first time over at the RCA building, and
he came out of his office, and I was walking down the hall, and he put his
arms around me and he said, `The real Mr. Rogers.' And Mr. Carson, when I was
with him one time, he said, `You know, Fred, we would never do these take-offs
about you if we didn't like you. We wouldn't care about making you famous.'
There have been some that have concerned me, though, Barbara, and one we
learned of--and this was on local television--somebody dressed up in a sweater
and sneakers and talked--they said, even more slowly than I talk--I did not
see this, but he pretended that he was I, and he said, `Now, boys and girls, I
want you to take your mother's hair spray and your daddy's cigarette lighter
and press the buttons together and you'll have a blow torch.'
Well, he was meaning to be funny, you know, but it was done in the afternoon,
so if any child, even one child, would have gotten the notion that that was
something that we had condoned and had tried such a thing, such a sexist thing
for one thing, that would have been disastrous. And so we were able to know
about that because a family that watched the "Neighborhood" wrote us and told
us about it. So we got it taken off the air.
BOGAEV: It's been wonderful to have you at the piano while we've been talking.
Perhaps you could sing something for us, or play something for us. Maybe not
necessarily a children's song, but something you play for your enjoyment, to
take us out.
(Soundbite of piano music)
Mr. ROGERS: (Singing) It's such a good feeling, a very good feeling, the
feeling you know that we're friends.
BOGAEV: Oh, Mr. Rogers, thank you so much for talking today on FRESH AIR.
Mr. ROGERS: Thank you, Barbara. Wish you well.
BOGAEV: Fred Rogers. His new book is "The Mister Rogers Parenting Book."
Coming up, a Burmese odyssey. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Pascal Khoo Thwe discusses his stories from his new
memoir, "From the Land of Green Ghosts"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
To understand just how far Pascal Khoo Thwe has journeyed in his life, you
have to know where he began. Thwe grew up a member of the Padaung Tribe in
the small settlement of Phekhon in southeast Burma. The Padaung have a
complex belief system, which is a blend of Catholic, Buddhist and animist
traditions. Living on the edge of the jungle, the tribe members hunt and
farm. Padaung women are known for their custom of wearing many brass
necklaces which make their necks appear elongated. In 1988, Thwe left his
village to study English literature at Mandalay University. At the time,
Burma was in the midst of a nationwide rebellion against the socialist
government, a military dictatorship headed by General Ne Win since 1962. Thwe
became a student agitator and eventually fled to the jungle, with the
authorities after him. He trained as a guerrilla soldier in rebel camps on
the Thai-Burmese border, and eventually he escaped to England.
He tells his story in the new memoir "From the Land of the Green Ghosts." I
asked Thwe what his experience was at the insurrection in Mandalay in 1988.
Mr. PASCAL KHOO THWE (Author, "From the Land of Green Ghosts"): Personally,
when it started to happen, I wasn't interested in those things at all, and
then, unfortunately, my girlfriend was involved in that, and then she was
arrested and raped and murdered. And I also witnessed the shooting of monks
and civilians who were protesting peacefully on the streets of Mandalay, and
these experiences made me feel very, very outraged. So what I did was I
simply said to myself, `I have to do something to help my people.' So I went
home, and I told those things to my villages, and they asked to become their
leader, to rally for the students throughout the country. So we kind of
organized this type of do-it-yourself pro-democracy rallies, and we were
threatened by machine guns again. And by 1988, August or September, there
were 3,000 students and monks and civilians were killed on the streets of
Burma. And then the military coup happened by September, so I had to flee my
hometown and went into the jungle.
BOGAEV: How did you know that you were in danger, that you personally were in
danger when you fled?
Mr. THWE: I found it out through a radio communication in my village. What
happened was--you have to remember that Burma still has only two or three
official radio stations, so a radio frequency, you know, of the channels are
all free almost inside Burma. So what I did was, after listening to Burmese
news, or the VOA or the BBC, I used to kind of play with the radio, and one
day I kind of caught this police communication line and I heard the name of my
friends, and they my name, saying that they were going to arrest us. And only
then I realized how serious I was in. And also what happened, one of my
uncles was on the site of the military government, so he also threatened to
shoot me if, you know, he saw me again or something. So I had to kind of
leave straight away. And then, sure enough, as soon as I left, they were on
my trail to the Thai-Burma border, so I had to kind of be very quick to escape
BOGAEV: Well, you were traveling with a few other students to the Thai-Burma
border where you'd heard that there was a rebel army in training.
Mr. THWE: Yes.
BOGAEV: What was that journey like?
Mr. THWE: I had to flee with my friends three or four nights without
sleeping, and we never knew where we were going, either, because we had no
maps, we had no proper guides, and sometimes even when we had guides, we would
be surrounded by Burmese troops and we had to break out from them. We didn't
have any really substantial weapons to defend us ourselves, so what we did was
we kind of thought, `OK, let's play Russian roulette here. If I manage to
escape and you don't, I will tell your family that you died there. Or if I
die, you tell my family that, you know, I died somewhere there. So let's do
And then sometimes when we were hiding, we couldn't hide anywhere in the
villages or areas that would be safe, so all we could do was we went into
these kind of places that the army wouldn't go, which used to be cemeteries,
because the Burmese soldiers, or people, used to be very afraid of cemeteries.
BOGAEV: I thought it was so interesting that you write of this journey that
you found it was impossible to force your body to climb the mountains and go
through the jungle, that you were trekking through if you only thought of your
fear of death. If you thought of the dangers, you got exhausted.
Mr. THWE: Yes.
BOGAEV: But what did work to motivate you, then, or give you energy to go on?
Mr. THWE: I kind of said to myself, you know, `Pascal, you had to be free.
You had to be alive. And when you are free and alive, you must tell the story
of your friends to the outside world.' And also, really, in a sense, I very
much kind of believe in all these spiritual connections, both religiously,
both just to do with tradition sense. So I believed that angels and the
spirits of my ancestor looked after me, so I have this trust that, you know,
they are protecting me and I will escape and I will one day be able to tell
people what happened to my friends and my countrymen.
BOGAEV: You reached the rebel army camp on the Thai-Burma border, and you
immediately started military training with other students. How much fighting
did you end up doing on the front of this guerrilla war?
Mr. THWE: In fact, I didn't really fight at all, because I wasn't really keen
to fight. At the same time, I wasn't very good fighter. So what I did was I
did learn to train myself to be a fighter. What happened was, in the end I
was so accident-prone that they said, `OK, Pascal, what you need to do is you
have to just look after our wounded friends and friends who are ill and trying
to find the supplies for you.'
BOGAEV: You write of the hardships you encountered along the route. What did
you eat, and how did you survive?
Mr. THWE: Mostly we had to depend on the jungle animals and vegetables. Most
of the time were vegetables and other plants that we could get hold of. But
we did have regular supply of rice from Thailand, and most of the time we had
to eat boiled plants. And also sometimes, if we were lucky, we could get
animals like pythons, jungle fowl, snakes, moles, frogs and fish. And my
favorite was, I think, jungle fowl, and we used to cook jungle fowl with
BOGAEV: Marijuana sauce?
Mr. THWE: Yes, we did.
BOGAEV: So that grew everywhere.
Mr. THWE: Yes, it was kind of grown very, you know, naturally, or wild, so we
had to kind of use them because we didn't a have normal type of herbs in that
area. But we were not allowed to smoke marijuana, though, because the people,
the rebels who control the area, were very devout Baptists, so one is not
allowed to drink this kind of drug-related plants, however useful. But we
were allowed to cook marijuana plants, so we kind of used those plants to cook
our meat. And also it helped us a lot, because we used to have this kind of
tension after each fighting and each escape. Everyone was tense, everyone's
nerves, you know, were very jangly. So what we did was we just stuff the
birds or animals that we could get with these herbs and cook them, and once we
had that, we were a bit more relaxed.
The eating situation was the worst thing, and sometimes we had this delusion.
That was the most dangerous time, when you didn't eat properly you didn't
sleep properly, and sometimes you thought that your friends were your enemies.
So we faced a lot of these kind of hardships, but I think that our
friendships, comradeships, kept us very close together, and we managed to, you
know, survive in the jungle.
BOGAEV: I'm speaking with Pascal Khoo Thwe. He was born a member of the
remote Padaung Tribe of Burma. He was a student in Mandalay during the
insurrection against the military regime in 1988. Afterwards he was a
fugitive in the jungle and a guerrilla fighter against the government. He
fled to England in 1989, where he has since graduated from Cambridge
University. Now he has a memoir of his journey. It's called "From the Land
of the Green Ghosts." Pascal, we're going to take a break now, and then we'll
talk some more.
Mr. THWE: OK.
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, my guest is Pascal Khoo Thwe. He grew up
in a remote village in Burma and was a student during the insurrection in
Mandalay in the late 1980s against the oppressive military dictatorship there,
first as a student rebel and then as a guerrilla fighter. He now lives in
England. His new memoir is "From the Land of the Green Ghosts."
You decided to make an escape from Burma, and you wrote a letter to an
Englishman, an English professor you had met in the restaurant that you worked
in while you were a student in Mandalay, Dr. Casey. You describe the
conditions in the camp, which were then pretty bleak. You'd had many bouts of
malaria, sickness; disease was rampant. So you wrote him a letter. What did
Mr. THWE: His response was just that, you know, `I'm sorry to hear that
you're in trouble,' or something to that effect. `But I will do my best,' and
that's all he said. And then with the letter came a parcel. I think there
were two books, at least, I remember. One was the Oxford Book of English
Verse, and then the other one was Henry James', I think, "Portrait of a Lady."
So when I flicked through the English book of verse, I found that there were
about $120 in different denominations. So I thought, `What was it?' And then
a couple months later, he said that he was coming to visit me on the
Thai-Burma border, and then I waited for him at a hotel and he said, `Would
you like to come down to Bangkok with us, because we want to talk to you?'
So I said, `Why not?' you know. So once I was in Bangkok, they said, `Would
you like to go to England and study?' I said, `Oh, that's very kind of you.
I'd really love to.' So that's how it started it.
BOGAEV: You've lived in England since you arrived in '89, and you've gone to
Cambridge University, gotten your degree there. What kind of contact have you
had with your family?
Mr. THWE: The first thing I did was I sent them a postcard and saying to them
that I'm still alive and well, but not anymore in the jungle, I'm in England.
So later I was told that what they did was they celebrated a kind of
Thanksgiving Mass for me because before that, they were told that I was killed
by Burmese soldiers on the border when they attacked my camp. When they heard
that I was alive again, they had that celebratory Mass, and then they wrote to
me saying that, you know, `Oh, you should work hard. Please don't come back
to your country yet because things are not very good. And if you come back,
they are surely at least going to arrest you and torture you to death. So be,
you know, brave and be happy wherever you are. And we will still remember
you.' But eventually I didn't contact them, partly because I was worried--am
still worried that they would be prosecuted or be interrogated for my actions.
BOGAEV: You left Burma in 1988, and since then the military government has
continued its campaign against the pro-democracy movement, which is headed by
Aung San Suu Kyi and which won elections in 1990. She had been under house
arrest since before the election, but she was released this spring, and that
was hailed as a huge step for the Burmese independence movement. Did you view
it with that much optimism? And what do you think has changed in Burma in the
wake of her release?
Mr. THWE: Her release is very good news, and also it raised a kind of
optimism among Burmese people. But I think the military is deliberately
delaying these talks and negotiations with the opposition groups. So I don't
think that things have changed much for the country, and every Burmese people
know there what's wrong with Burma. It is the mismanagement of the country's
affairs. And inside Burma, the people who are really working hard are people
like Aung San Suu Kyi and other political parties who are trying to do decent
things, trying to help the people. But they are still being arrested and
imprisoned in Burma, sometimes killed.
So my feeling is they really haven't improved the people's situation. So what
Burma needs is the coordinated pressures from international communities to
help Burmese people. I mean, several things could be sanction, could be
diplomatic dialogues and could be other things that could bring Burma back to
this normality. And the last time I visit the refugee camps on the Thai-Burma
border, I saw many people are still fleeing from Burma.
BOGAEV: What were you doing in the camps on the Thai-Burma border?
Mr. THWE: I always go back there to get closer to my people if I could, if I
could afford to. And I always want to learn what is happening to my country
from close quarters. And also, many of my student friends who left with me in
1988 are still living there. And some have died, some are still imprisoned
sometimes by the Thai authorities for entering Thailand illegally.
BOGAEV: Can I ask you what you miss most from your home?
Mr. THWE: Many things, I think, but it's difficult to say, but I do miss the
people, I think, because this feeling of wanting to be with your people is
innate in everyone. And the feeling of, you know, belonging to your people
and also suffering with them and joining with them that is very much missing.
And I also miss, I think, this kind of climate; very much kind of warm
weather, I think. That's what I really miss about that.
BOGAEV: Pascal Khoo Thwe, I want to thank you so much for talking with me
Mr. THWE: It's a pleasure.
BOGAEV: Pascal Khoo Thwe's new memoir is "The Land of the Green Ghosts."
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
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