A winding, bumpy route through the misty mountains of eastern Myanmar is being paved into a smooth two-lane highway, the type of road commonly found in other scenic stretches from the Alps to the Rockies.
But here, in a rugged land, long cut off by ethnic insurgency, there is nothing ordinary about a paved road.
For farmers and villagers who have spent decades in isolation, it is a potential path out of their impoverished hinterland to a better future. It is an emblem of how much is changing in Myanmar but also how much is not.
The 322 km road swerves along a mostly jungle-covered plateau of Shan state, a war-torn region that is known for drug smuggling and has been off-limits to foreigners for years.
As Myanmar emerges from half a century of military rule, one of its toughest challenges is to reintegrate areas like this one, where decades of fighting have engendered deep feelings of fear, mistrust and hatred of the army and, by extension, the government.
Paved roads might be called Myanmar’s first peace dividend, an effort by its new civilian rulers to connect some of Asia’s poorest people to their own country and show them the benefits of joining the fold.
The U.N. mission, to visit opium poppy fields, travelled with a mandatory armed police escort since it is still a conflict zone. Many along the way said they had never seen a foreigner before. The five-day journey offered a glimpse into the challenge ahead — can the government overcome the ingrained animosity among its ethnic minorities and achieve its goal of national unity?
Signs of hope mingled with reminders of a troubled past. Police filmed and photographed the AP crew and villagers during many interviews. Some towns are barricaded by gates still locked at night to keep armed rebels out.
The road is being paved with the help of child labour, a scourge of the military era. But there were also teachers, farmers and nurses who described the construction and other recent developments as a tangible sign of progress in a corner of the country that has been cut off by conflict, trapped by poverty and overlooked by the government.
About halfway along the route, the farming village of Dar Seid was excitedly awaiting the arrival of nearby work crews, said a young man who proudly introduced himself as the community’s first democratically elected leader.
Since his election in January, Sai Phone Myat Zin (34) has immersed himself in the study of democracy and the needs of his ethnic Shan people, who have no electricity or running water.
“A good, paved road will change our lives,” he said. For now, the road is a potholed dirt trail that bisects the village, and every passing vehicle kicks up clouds of chalky dust. “Our children have to walk two miles through dust and dirt to get to the closest school.”
This part of Shan state is designated a black zone areas that remain rebel strongholds, where battles with government troops raged in the jungles for decades. Shaky cease-fires, signed over the past year and a half, have paved the way for the roadwork.
The route starts outside the state capital of Taunggyi and heads east through government-controlled towns before climbing into the hills that give cover to rebels.
Here too live the hill tribes — the Pa-O, Lisu, Lahu, Shan and others — many of whom survive by growing opium poppies, the region’s main cash crop.
The road ends in the mountain town of Mong Hsat, near the Thailand border town of Tachilek, and is being touted as a new trade route.
The construction itself is a reflection of the old Myanmar, repressed and impoverished under military rule that ended in 2011. East of Dar Seid, children are paid $3 a day to carry baskets of rocks amid choking dust.
The Ministry of Construction says completion of the work depends on the availability of funds. The project is part of a national plan to improve Myanmar’s dilapidated infrastructure. Only 22 per cent of its 142,400 km in roads is paved. Two years ago, when President Thein Sein inaugurated Myanmar’s first civilian government in five decades, the people of Ywar Thar Yar, a mountaintop village through which the road passes, heard the historic news on their shortwave radios.
“We didn’t expect any changes here. But I’m surprised how fast change has come,” said the village teacher, Mu Mu Khaing (45).
“This year, for the first time ever, the village got books from the government,” she said, her eyes wide with emotion. “A big rice sack filled with school books just turned up one day.”
It was one of many firsts. The Education Ministry recently told the village it would build a schoolhouse to replace a flimsy bamboo hut made by the community.
“Sometimes, I teach with an umbrella because the rain is coming through the roof,” said Mu Mu Khaing. Her paycheque is bigger these days — last year, for the first time in a decade, she got a raise that nearly tripled her monthly salary to 136,000 kyat, or $170.
Once the road is paved, it will be easier to pick up her paycheque, now a 10-hour walk downhill to Mong Pan. Small steps, perhaps, for the long journey ahead. “My hope, my dream”, the 45-year-old teacher said, “is that the new road will lead our children to a better life”. — AP