Riding the rails from Rangoon to the top of Myanmar, where few outsiders have ever been and even residents rarely are allowed, our reporter risks house arrest and train wrecks only to find that one of the world's most reviled regimes rules a friendly, frightened people

By Ron Gluckman / Rangoon to Myitkyina

THE TORTUROUS TRAIN JOUNEY NORTH OF MANDALAY is a nightmare of overheated carriages, backbreaking hard seats and rickety tracks. Beyond this northern city, the "express" averages 25 kph. But it is further north, in troubled northern Kachin state, where no tourists and even few Myanmar residents have been allowed to travel, that the decrepit tracks truly show their age. The line was built by the British, who ruled the land they called Burma from the mid-1800s to 1948, and long stretches of track haven’t been repaired in a full century.

The slow shuffle, though, grinds to a crawl at a bridge near remote Mohnyin. It collapsed a few weeks before, killing over a hundred people in Myanmar’s worst rail disaster. That information was never reported here. Yet, as passengers lean out windows, searching for the wreck, it’s clear the news got past the state censors.

"Look, look. Over there," shouts one man, pointing to a tangle of metal at the bottom of a steep gorge. Inching forward, we see a more frightening sight. At the base of the bridge scores of shirtless men are maneuvering long bamboo poles. Incredibly, they seem to be propping up the bridge.

We had heard from the head of the state railway system that the crash was caused by overcrowded trains. Looking out the window now, I murmur prayers while counting heads. All of the carriages are packed with people and, of course, all are leaning out the windows, putting the full weight of those added bodies on the bridge’s vulnerable flank. Thankfully, the bridge and bamboo poles hold, and the ancient engine chugs along. As soon as we are safe on the other side, I smile at companion San Lwin, who nods knowingly. "Train crash," he says as we pass the wreckage. "Lucky, it’s not us," I reply.

Indeed, simply being on board is a fortuitous blessing. A few months before, covering a charity mission to Yangon, I had met most of the government ministers, including Khin Nyunt, secretary general and "No 1" of the State Law and Order Restoration Council. SLORC's generals have ruled Burma, which they renamed Myanmar, since seizing power after elections in 1988 - despite protests from national leaders, students, ethnic groups and most of the world community.

At a dinner honoring ORBIS, a charity that brings eye surgeons and skills to poor countries, one tourism official took me aside. Eager for the foreign dollars brought by tourists, Myanmar was considering renting out a few luxury rail cars. He described a travel writer’s dream: wood panels, stained glass, and servants cooking on board. The special carriages slept six, and could be taken anywhere, 10 days at a time. The price, US$300, seemed a bargain, but still there had been no bites. "Perhaps you can help us?" he asked.

Even with the invitation, permission for the journey took months to negotiate. Without a doubt, Myanmar has opened up in recent years. Visas that were once restricted to a single day are now four weeks, and easily obtained. Yet tourists are generally limited to runs between Mandalay and Yangon, plus a few short spurs, such as to popular Inle Lake.

Most of Myanmar remains closed. Pleas to travel through Mon state to Asin were rejected, but we managed to overcome earlier refusal to win a visa for the jade-mining region of Mogaung and onward to the northernmost terminus of Myitkyina. This covered the longest stretch of track possible.

The first sight of the "luxury" carriage was unsettling. There was wood paneling, if you scraped away decades of dust, and plenty of stains, but no glass. Rather than sleep six in two bedrooms, the carriage had two bunks in a single room, and two dirty couches in the lounge. And the price had already tripled. The biggest problem was the lack of power. However, our hosts insisted they would repair the generator and have the carriage ready to roll. "You won’t believe what you will see in the morning," promised one railway worker.

His prophesy came true. Stumbling aboard before dawn, we couldn’t see a thing. There was still no power, but he promised the generator would work once the train began moving. It never did, rendering the fans and fridge useless. Still, as we pulled out of Yangon, we were a happy quintet: photographer Murray White and myself, San Lwin and Sanje, two staff provided by Yangon's Inya Lake Hotel, which arranged the details of our trip, plus a railway guard to watch over the lot of us. The hotel stocked food and drinks, which San Lwin and Sanje served on a linen-covered table set with flowers. Most precious of all, tucked inside an envelope were our visa and tickets.

The documents were priceless. Buying supplies in Yangon the day before, we drew looks of disbelief whenever the trip was mentioned. Until we pulled out the visa. Then, heads shook, jaws dropped. Yellowed hands at Bogyoke Market held the paper to the light, then passed it back enviously. "You are very lucky," we heard repeatedly. "No one is allowed to go to Myitkyina."

Our good fortune is easy to forget minutes after rolling away Yangon. As the train topples a flower vase over the map spread on the table, I make my calculations: 17 hours to cover 610 kilometers on the first leg, just to Mandalay. And we feel every agonizing inch.

Like infrastructure everywhere in Myanmar, the rail system is in a miserable state. However, in this case, safety is at stake as the crumbling yet crucial rail system collapses from the strain of moving more than 60 million passengers per year, according to Myanmar Railroad general manager U Soe Tint.

"The whole system needs repair, but there is no money," laments the burly train boss, shirtsleeves rolled up in his hot Yangon office. Modernizing the outdated meter-sized track will take billions of dollars, he says. "Before 1988, the Japanese did some studies and were offering help. But that is gone. Also, we got parts from the Germans and French. Now nothing," he says, repeating a theme I hear endlessly at offices around the capital. With the popular oppositionist Aung San Suu Kyi ending her sixth year of house arrest and the SLORC junta showing no signs of relinquishing control, the major world powers continue to hold back the investment dollars that Myanmar so desperately needs. Still, SLORC has spent billions on arms purchases over the last few years to maintain its strongarm hold over the populace.

Tourism could help, but, presently, fewer than 10,000 foreigners ride the rails each year, he says. Myanmar has announced goals of 500,000 tourists for its Visit Myanmar Year 1996. With less than a tenth that number visiting last year, even tourism officials call the target ludicrous. "If that many people came," says U Myo lwin, deputy director general of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, "where would we put them? How would we get them around?"

We feel the age of the rails the first night, sweating in our bunks, praying for the escape of sleep. Our luck doesn’t stretch that far. Myanmar trains don’t just pitch from side to side, they lurch, leap and buckle. The relentless bumps and bends churn our internal organs like a skillful torture system. Consolation comes from the panoramas flashing past the windows, sights few outsiders have seen. One foreigner with a volunteer group lived almost a year in Mandalay and never got more than 50 kilometers north, despite many attempts. "You have to take notes of everything and tell the world," she urges.

However, there isn’t that much to report as the tracks run through Myanmar’s huge central plain, planted in endless rice fields. We keep waiting for an end to the monotony of brown husks, but the jungles of Rudyard Kipling’s enchanting novels never appear. It’s a complaint voiced often, by visitors as well as activists, that Myanmar has cleared much of its forests. "SLORC has turned everything to desert," a French tourist says in Mandalay.

Many human rights groups say that SLORC has leveled the forests to hinder the rebels fighting Yangon’s rule. Others accuse SLORC of bankrolling its top brass by selling off Myanmar’s vast timber resources; as much as 80 percent of the former rain forest is reportedly gone.

There are other reminders that this long ago ceased being the richest nation in Asia. Some are charming country scenes, women in magenta dresses, driving ox carts with stagecoach-style wooden wheels, piled high with hay. Where there aren’t enough animals to go around, men pull the harnesses themselves.

Bedlam erupts at dawn as the train arrives in Shwebo. Upon the platform, a remarkable ritual ensues. Among food vendors and smugglers, appear children carrying ceramic jugs and toothbrushes. This first morning call is the washing stop. Passengers pay a penny to scrub with the communal toothbrush.

Still, despite the poverty, smiles and friendly waves greet each stop. On the platforms are craftsmen who have turned scraps of wood into tables and chairs, and kids playing musical instruments The fields always appear well tended, the children clean. Even under military rule, Myanmar is full of life and laughter.

But there are ugly scenes, too, and many of them. Our first glimpse of the dark side of Myanmar comes 100 kilometers north of Yangon, when the train passes a long line of men in tattered rags. They line both sides of the train, heads bowed. Even before seeing the chains dangling from their legs, we can tell from their sad, pleading appearance that they constitute a chain gang.

They appear again and again along the route, rag workers chained like animals. Many are mere boys. The reaction is always the same. Passengers shower them with money, sometimes cigarettes or food. After a month in Myanmar, I’m used to the routine, but the first time, it’s astonishing, especially in a country where kindness can be so mercilessly punished. What a beautiful, but bittersweet sight. The bills flutter in the wind like the feathery will of the people, repulsed by the barbaric practice of forced labor, but helpless to end it.

This is one of Myanmar’s greatest shames, for the conscription of workers is commonplace, as human rights organizations have long contended. Chain gangs are paraded before people’s eyes everywhere. Prisoners by the score dredge the moat around the Mandalay Fort under armed guard. Other gangs repair roads and pathways to all the major tourist sites as the country rushes to ready for the hordes of tourists SLORC hopes to attract during Visit Myanmar Year 1996.

In other parts of the country, we see entire towns on road duty, breaking stones with primitive tools. Many are tiny children, laboring in the hot sun. This is another form of oppression: ordinary citizens forced to donate their time to do the state's backbreaking work. In Myitkyina, people describe how soldiers stroll into a neighborhood demanding workers. Most are conscripted for porter duty in the ongoing battles against guerrilla groups. Residents describe paying bribes, as much as US$50 to send them knocking elsewhere. "It happens all the time," a shop keeper says.

We see it for ourselves in Yaotawn, where a ruckus erupts soon after we cross the Kachin border and pull into the next station. Six soldiers are yanking people off the train. Men and women are roughly pressed into service. The women are given heavy bundles, while many men are handed guns. Then, they are hustled off in cheap plastic sandals amidst the wailing of friends and relatives left on the train. "To fight the war," a passenger says, in a whisper.

Military presence is strong along the train route, particularly in Kachin state, where residents say the fighting continues contrary to a truce announced recently by SLORC. Thirteen groups have signed agreements with SLORC since 1989; many have been fighting since independence in 1948. Still, there have been reports of widespread dissatisfaction. The Kachins, one of the biggest ethnic insurgent groups, signed a truce in 1993, but we are told repeatedly of ongoing resistance in the state, as well as the Mon and eastern Shan areas.

Donald Delory is among those rejecting official reports of a truce with the Kachin guerillas. He fought alongside the Kachins in World War II as a member of Merrill's Marauders, the rag-tag band of courageous US soldiers who helped defeat the Japanese 50 years ago. We bump into Delory and some of his former comrades one night in Mandalay, as they drink beers in a sleezy rooftop bar. "Those are tough fighters," says Delory, rubbing his green beret in respect. "They kept us going in the jungle. We really wanted to go back and see if there are any of them still around. Mogaung is the place. You two are lucky fellas."

Two dozen Marauders have hobbled back to the country where they are credited with inventing modern guerilla warfare. We easily mark them as veterans. Even in their 70s, they still exude an unmistakable bravado. A half century ago, these brash bush heroes put their lives on the line. In no-name patches of malaria-infested jungle, they sustained some of the war's worst casualties to stave off the spread of fascism. Or so they thought. "Now, look at this place," says one disgruntled vet. "The government is killing its people. What were we fighting for?"

Continuing Kachin resistance may explain why each town has bamboo barricades at the entrance and exit of every train station. The barricades are surrounded by rows of sharpened bamboo sticks. If not so deadly real, these lashed-together stockades could be dismissed as the construction of children, playing backyard battles.

The image extends to the soldiers themselves, often shirtless, often teens. At one bamboo fort along a river at sunset, two baby-faced soldiers spy our white faces, set down machine guns, and wave madly. It’s easy to imagine, somewhere, outside the stockade, mothers calling them back from battle, and home for supper.

Seeing the smiles on all the faces, even of soldiers, it’s easy to be lulled into a sense of serenity, forgetting that this is, indeed, a brutal military regime. The reminders come without warning, and at most unexpected occasions.

When the train pulls into Myitkyina, a group of turban-clad men stand on the platform. They turn out to be the town’s entire population of Sikhs, on hand to bid farewell to a woman visiting from India. She’s someone’s second cousin, but, in Myitkyina, that’s like being blood relative to the entire community. One of these friendly people offers a car for hire, and a few days later, we accept.

Half a dozen of them jump in the back of a pickup truck, and nobody shows the slightest sign of distress when we leave behind the secret police who suddenly appear from doorways. They have been tailing us throughout our stay in town. In fact, we’re in good spirits until the first checkpoint. Three soldiers had been kicking a ball in the dirt, but now they have machine guns at the ready.

We have no papers to be outside town, nor do the Sikhs have permission to be with foreigners. The leader at the outpost, a small tattooed thug, rubs the stock of his gun with an evil grin. Our friends brace for the storm to hit.

But the bad weather blows away when I pull out a photograph from our last visit. SLORC leader Khin Nyunt, who is also the powerful head of military intelligence, can be seen shaking my hand, with Murray watching. The goon looks it over, then lifts a finger and shouts, "Number One! Number One!" The barricade lifts, and terror washes out of the truck. "That’s very handy," says one friend, relieved. But it’s many miles before the carefree smiles return their faces.

We had already acquired an appreciation for the volatility of the situation a few days earlier in Mogaung where, immediately after arrival, we are placed under house arrest. Taken to Than Liwn Guest House, we are interrogated by a procession of underlings before the big boss arrives looking like Dirty Harry. Major Wan Hlain wears a maroon parka, matching cowboy hat and a poker face that changes not a wit when viewing our visa - and he's not in the least impressed with our trump card, the picture of Khin Nyunt. After a night in custody, a stalemate is acknowledged. The major won’t allow us to visit the nearby jade mines, our aim all along, but it’s also clear he hasn’t a clue what to do.

The solution comes the next morning when we face a terrified immigration official, sandwiched between monsters from the police and military intelligence. Everyone wants to know how we slipped into town and, judging from his look of fright, immigration man is the scapegoat. He’s shaking frantically, so much that he cannot hold his cigarette, and spills coffee over his forms.

The tension turns around when I suggest we continue to Myitkyina, where our railcar is waiting. Suddenly, smiles fill the room, the house arrest is lifted. We are even given a tour of Mogaung. Murray snaps scores of trucks packed with people headed to the mines, where wages of $5-7 a day make a high death rate worth the risk. We also visit the local illegal jade market where Chinese buyers acquire jade in open defiance of the military ban on sales. Many pay a cut to the local police.

Some of that money lines the maroon pockets of the major, who poses for pictures back at his ranch, arms wrapped around his former prisoners. We later learn that he’s the former military governor in the area and had good reason to bar us from the mines; he owns many of them.

And so it goes throughout Myanmar, where a giddy panic prevails among the population, like a police state on laughing gas. We see it often, off the tourist track, where military control is ironclad, yet the people as kind as they come.

The residents of Myitkyina, at the end of the line, treat us like kings. Vendors in the market offer gifts as we pass, paying no attention to our secret police escort. And the surveillance hardly seems necessary, since everyone in town knows our every move. New friends recite our routine right down to the dishes we had for dinner. Returning from a festival late one night, our train carriage has been moved. People sleeping on the platform point it out before we even ask.

Perhaps that makes the tyranny and terror all the more terrible, in such a gentle setting. Often, the lines get blurred, like at Myitkyina railway station, where police circle our carriage for days before demanding an interrogation. "Don’t let them in," I tell San Lwin, who is easily rattled and offers bribes to the corrupt officials. Grabbing our documents, I go alone, leaving him safely behind.

He’s still watching from the window an hour later, when I return with the same police chief, who insists on holding my hand all the way back to the carriage. We must look like schoolboys, but San Lwin has seen it all before. That’s Myanmar in: a land of apparent innocence, until the inhumanity is unleashed again.


Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia for a number of publications, such as Asiaweek, which ran this story in June 1995. Ron Gluckman has made many visits to Myanmar, or Burma, as its democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi prefers that it be called. Read Ron Gluckman's interview with Aung San Suu Kyi, or another report on Suu Kyi. To look at some of his other stories on Burma, please click on Where have all the opium poppies gone, Down and Up in Myanmar , Rock 'n' Rangoon, or Visit Myanmar?


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