The road from Tamu, the Myanmar township just across the Indian border, to Kalemyo via Kalewa, could have been any Indian road in terms of construction quality and feel. This is hardly surprising, for this 160 km stretch of two lane asphalt was built by India’s BRO (Border Road Organisation), and inaugurated in 2001. Its maintenance is also under the charge of the BRO, and occasionally, as we cut through virtually uninhabited peripheries of the Sagaing Division of the country, BRO vehicles, road construction machineries and earth movers, became a familiar sight.
We bypassed Kalewa and arrived at Kalemyo, the larger and busier of the two adjacent townships for a night’s halt. The entire town was waiting for us. Myanmar’s general enthusiasm and hunger for change is evident in every one of the thousands of faces along the road waving as the rally cars cruised into town. Everybody was so eager to please us, almost to the point of embarrassment. From the petrol pump handlers where we queued up to refill, to the sparse staff of the few modest hotels where we were booked, everybody was apologetic that their service may not match our expectations. They were, they said, new to what they see as Myanmar’s approaching brave new world, hurried in after more than 60 years of almost complete insulation imposed by a tough but insecure military junta.
“Please bear with us. We are still learning,” explained the young manager of the hotel I was to stay in, and his staff went around the lobby telling each of us the same as we waited for our respective rooms to be allotted. I could not help pondering then, that while this evident hunger for change can provide the impetus for Myanmar to free itself from its current circumstance to join many of its neighbours – aptly referred to as the Asian Tigers – it might also result in disappointment. Indeed, amid the current euphoria and optimism in Myanmar, there are worries too that in the absence of an enlightened leadership, these hopes would be belied. As a Foreign Policy article pointed out, after 60 years of dictatorship, the majority of people have remained impoverished, while the wealth of this resource rich country have been funnelled into the hands of less than one percent of the population, those in or close to the erstwhile military regime. Even today, the Myanmar military clings to the levers of power in government, and many analysts still describe the Myanmar government as a proxy of the country’s military.
This dichotomy between rich and poor is evident everywhere. During the rally, there were hardly any motor vehicles on most of the roads, but every now and then, expensive SUVs and sports cars would whizz past us. This coterie has the money, but there is little in the way of an entrepreneurship culture, so they end up investing their money in property. Due to the buying spree since Myanmar’s liberalisation, price tags on real estate in Mandalay and Rangoon, as well as other major cities, have shot up dramatically. Property prices in Mandalay are said to have surpassed those in Bangkok.
The much-touted rush of foreign capital into Myanmar is, however, of a different, but equally problematic kind. Almost all are in extractive industries which would not generate large scale employment or income streams for the people by and large. A Foreign Policy article for instance so insightfully warned of the danger of overestimating the value of the current rush of foreign investment into the country saying this is unlikely to lead to Myanmar joining the league of the Asian Tigers. The article argued the economies of the Asian Tigers don’t look anything like Myanmar’s, which is driven by primary industries such as natural gas, agriculture, timber, jade, and minerals. According to it, together these industries made up over 80 percent of exports last year. They also dominate foreign investment: oil, gas and mining alone comprised almost 90 percent of FDI over the last half decade. Myanmar’s rapprochement with the West has brought even more interest in these sectors. As for instance, the new government signed deals for 10 oil and gas blocks earlier this year and is offering 23 more, the article continues.
Pointing out the Asian Tigers had it differently, the article said the Asian Tigers were mostly resource-poor and relied on export-oriented manufacturing to develop. Their foreign direct investment (FDI) was mostly in manufacturing, not resources.
Our rally team started off early from Kalmeyo, in anticipation of the 232 km stretch to the next major township, Monywa, reputed to be little more than a dirt track. We were soon to find out how true to reality this reputation was. A great part of the road runs along the picturesque Chindwin River, before ascending a hill range beyond which lies Monywa, where currently there is a raging controversy over copper mining by a Chinese weapons manufacturing company, Wan Bao, and a local Myanmar partner, Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited. The asphalt topping along most of this road had been almost totally washed off and as this was the dry season, we drove with fog lights as visibility often dropped to less than ten metres on account of the dust cloud that the cars in front kicked up. One can only imagine that in rainy season, only four wheel drives would be able to negotiate this road. The road also cuts across many rivulets, over which there are only weak bridges. Heavy passenger buses as well as freight vehicles have to climb down to the river beds to negotiate these. Obviously, heavy vehicle traffic would not be possible in the monsoon seasons when these rivulets are in spate. This knowledge is not new though; many accounts from the now-defunct, but soon to be revised, Imphal-Mandalay bus service have detailed this. Fortunately for the locals, it seems India will be extending the Tamu-Kalmeyo road up to Monywa, and BRO vehicles are already seen at intervals here too.
From Monywa to Mandalay via Sagaing town is another 131 km. The road is blacked-topped and well-maintained. Rural poverty is visible all around, and the resilience with which this condition is being borne by ordinary people would have been heroic if it was not so tragic. The Buddhist ethos shines through and manifests in an all-round social discipline. Pitchers filled with potable water and placed on wooden platforms fixed at convenient heights lined the roads at regular intervals. The pitchers were never empty. It was not clear whose responsibility it is to fill them, but is most likely to be the villagers nearby.
That Myanmar is in many ways still at odds with itself also became evident, and in a dramatic way. Most of its vehicles, especially the older ones, are right hand drives, but vehicles are also required to drive on the right hand side of the road. Apart from making judgment while driving less accurate, this also leaves passengers on public transport disembarking onto the middle of the road. Last year, the Myanmar government issued a decree that fresh imports of motor vehicles would to be left hand drive only.
Mandalay is – unsurprisingly – a great city. It was the seat of Myanmar’s power until 1885, when King Thibaw, the last of the Konbaung kings, was defeated by the British, with his country annexed into the British Empire. Thibaw and his queen Supalayat were exiled to Ratnagiri near Goa in India, where they spent the rest of their lives. We arrived at night, when it was neon-lit and glittering. The city gravitates around the majestic Mandalay Palace which boasts a large and picturesque moat running around its eight kilometre perimeter. We halted for the night at Mandalay, and were put up in a hotel overlooking the palace. In the evening there was a dinner and cultural programme in another hotel some distance across from the palace. The dinner got finished well after midnight, and when the buses were ready to transport us back to our hotel, I decided to walk back, hoping to get a better feel for the place. Although there were few cars or pedestrians around by then, I felt absolutely secure. Young people on mopeds cruised by occasionally, chatting away, probably returning from late night dates. Some policemen on the far side of the road eyed me curiously, but dropping their gaze in civility when I looked back. Crime in the city, I later found out, is almost nil. Was this the effect of six decades of military disciplining or a characteristic inherent in Mandalay? Whichever the answer may be, obviously nobody is the loser.
Mandalay to Naypyidaw, the brand new, ultra-modern capital of Myanmar, is a distance of 324 km, but is easily traversed in half a day. The road between these two cities is a newly constructed, reinforced concrete, state-of-art highway spanning four, and in places eight lanes. Naypyidaw is a beautiful city of glass and steel buildings, well-planned and wide avenues, sprawling green lawns and parks, swank shopping malls and hotels, attractive, affluent residential apartments and bungalows, and an administrative centre adjacent to a gilded replica of the famous Swedagon Pagoda in Yangon. The only unusual thing about this city is that is largely unpopulated, giving it an eerie, haunted feel. Most predict this will change, with Naypyidaw transforming into a megacity of the future – bustling with life – once people have begun occupying the apartments, and the malls and multiplexes begin to have visitors. One other thing is certain: this city will most probably remain affordable only to the richest of the rich in Myannar.
After a night’s halt at Naypyidaw, our rally proceeded to Yangon, a city which wears a tired look and is reminiscent of Kolkata, with unmistakable colonial architecture lending a peculiar old world charm to many of its noisy streets. The distance of 330 km was covered with uneventful ease. We spent three nights here, attending a formal reception held by the Indian embassy, touring the city, visiting the magnificent Swegadon Pagoda, and shopping. A touching sight at the Swegadon is a huge photo print in one corner of the pagoda, of the bunyan tree at Bodhgaya in Bihar state of India where Siddharth the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. People throng this image and pay their respects. A guide explained that many devotees in Myanmar are unable to afford a pilgrimage to the Bodhgaya temple, and so instead they make do here, offering their worship before this image of the holy site at the Swedagon.
We took a different route on our return journey. Instead of taking the road back to Naypyidaw and Mandalay, our rally took us to Pyay, another ancient city, Bagan the haunting land of a thousand pagodas and then Monywa, Kaleymo, Tamu finally crossing back into India at Moreh in Manipur. Bagan was extraordinary; an entire landscape littered with pagodas of various sizes and shapes. Some were built out of pure devotion by ordinary people, others by rich folks in the belief this would absolve them from sins of their lifetime, ensuring a dignified rebirth in the next life, as George Orwell suggests in Burmese Days.
The wonderful pagodas and temples of Myanmar are proof of the creativity that religiosity can inspire. Perhaps a little unsettling is that, amidst all its great artistic and architectural creations, secular efforts – with the prominent exception of the Mandalay Palace – are conspicuous by their absence. Also striking is the level of preservation: many of the grandest Burmese pagodas while very old, look like new, owing to continuous upgrading and renovation. These include the majestic Swedagon. Some may frown at this, but then these are living monuments, still used by devotees and not dead ones preserved for the benefit of tourists and visitors. These are not museums but temples of worship. The present is part of history and has a right to contribute to it.
One other thing became evident from day one of entry into Myanmar. People from Northeast India would be perfectly at home with the food, mannerism and general etiquettes of the people. However there are some differences. Meat tends to be a little overcooked, and for those who love sinking teeth into flesh, this is no fun. Anything that moves is protein, true of much of Northeast too, but much more here as in other South East Asian countries. Perhaps the difference is proximity to the vegetarian and quasi vegetarian cultures from “mainland” Hindu India. But then Myanmar was also part of British India till as late as 1937, just ten years short of Indian independence. If the British decision to have a separate Burma Office in that year was delayed by another 10 years, it is only a matter of counterfactual speculation, that Burma could have been treated as a Princely State, and the map of the Northeast could have been radically different. Not surprisingly then, there is plenty of India evident in Myanmar cuisines as well.
(A slightly modified version of this article was published in the final issue of Himal South Asian, Kathmandu, before the journal closed down its print edition)
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author