How Myanmar’s Railways Reflect the Nation’s Uneasy History

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How Myanmar’s Railways Reflect the Nation’s Uneasy History

A new book highlights the role that the country’s rail network has played in the making – and unmaking – of a conflict-torn country.

How Myanmar’s Railways Reflect the Nation’s Uneasy History

A gate lies across the tracks at the Gokteik viaduct in Myanmar’s Shan State, on the railway line between Mandalay and Lashio, November 23, 2016.

Credit: Photo 187444925 © Matyas Rehak |

In the late 2010s, the journalist Clare Hammond set off on a journey across the length and breadth of Myanmar, traveling as much as possible on the country’s railways – both those built by the British, and those constructed in the years since independence by the Myanmar military.

It is a journey that she recounts in a new book, “On The Shadow Tracks: A Journey Through Occupied Myanmar” (Penguin, 2024). In addition to documenting her eventful journey, Hammond burrows into the history of Myanmar’s rail network, outlining its connections to decades of disastrous military rule and the baleful legacies of British colonialism. From London, Hammond spoke with The Diplomat about the history of Myanmar’s railways and the ways in which they refract the country’s past – and present – struggles.

First off, tell us a bit about the origin of the book. How did you come to embark on a journey over Myanmar’s railways?

In 2016, I was working as a journalist in Yangon when I came across an obscure map in a policy paper that showed a web of railways spanning the length and breadth of the country. Built since the 1990s, in the decades when Myanmar was largely closed to outsiders, they stretched from the tropical Tanintharyi peninsula bordering Thailand, to Rakhine in the west, and to militia-controlled towns along the Chinese border in the east.

These railways didn’t appear on other publicly available maps, and when I started to ask questions, I quickly realized that very little was known about them. An idea began to take root: by traveling on these mysterious railways and piecing together their story, I could use them as a framework to understand what had happened in Myanmar during the decades of military rule. I didn’t imagine, then, that this obscure map would also lead me to an older story, about Britain’s colonial past.

At the time, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government had just taken office and more of Myanmar was open to outsiders than it has been at any time before or since. I packed a small backpack and set out on a 3,000-mile journey across the country. With the map as my guide, I persuaded officials to let me travel on the dilapidated diesel trains, and where the lines petered out, by boat, motorbike, and foot. Looking back, it was a remarkable opportunity. Even as I traveled, parts of the country were closing behind me.

Railways are often cited by defenders of the British Raj (of which Myanmar was a part until 1937) as one of the positive legacies of its rule over the subcontinent. How do you assess the economic and political impact of Myanmar’s railways, both those built by the British and the lines that were constructed after independence? What role have they played in the making (or unmaking) of modern Myanmar?

The railways have “made” Myanmar largely through the violent expansion of state power. The British were the first in Myanmar (then Burma) to build railways into territory they barely controlled, opening them in sections after the third (and final) Anglo-Burmese War to shuttle troops to an advancing front line. Railways gave the British a significant military advantage over resistance fighters, who were limited to traveling on waterways and narrow jungle paths.

The backbone of Myanmar’s railway network, a 700-mile line that connects Yangon through Mandalay to Myitkyina in the far north, enabled the British to crush a fierce, decentralized resistance, and to bind together multiple territories under a single authority.

When this railway and others were finished, they were fortified with barracks, police stations, and prisons – the infrastructure of colonial control – and this became the core of the British state in Burma. After independence, this infrastructure was taken over and expanded by Myanmar’s armed forces.

In the 1990s, the Myanmar military rounded up civilians and forced them at gunpoint to build new railways into the borderlands (Tanintharyi in the south, Sagaing near the Indian border, southern Shan, and tiny landlocked Kayah), tethering remote and separatist regions to the military-held center. Accurate numbers don’t exist, but it’s likely that millions of people were forced to work. At the same time, military campaigns that drew on British tactics were driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

At the same time, railways have contributed to the “unmaking” of Myanmar, because they have always fueled resistance. Even as British engineers were building the mainline to Myitkyina in the 1890s, armed groups who saw it as a threat to their freedom were blowing up the tracks. Attacks on this railway and others have continued throughout Myanmar’s history. Today, more than a century later, the Kachin Independence Army has rendered the line to Myitkyina almost unusable, preventing Myanmar’s military from sending troops by train to the north.

The second legacy of British railway-building is resource extraction. New railways were built to export wealth from Burma in the form of oil, teak, minerals, gemstones, and other commodities. These were transported by train to the dockyards at Rangoon, then shipped out across the Empire. There were, of course, marginal benefits to local communities who could move their produce more easily to market. But the main beneficiaries were British companies, who made enormous profits. This extractive economy has since been taken over by Myanmar’s military and its cronies.

More broadly, what impact do you think British rule – particularly, its legacy of ethnic and racial stratification – has had on the melancholy trajectory of Myanmar since independence in 1948?

There are the big, catastrophic conflicts that are widely seen to have their roots in British policymaking, such as the Rohingya crisis, and the fact that Myanmar is home to some of the world’s longest-running civil wars. But just as harmful are the everyday divisions along ethnic and racial lines that have intensified since independence, creating an environment of deep mistrust and fueling ongoing cycles of violence.

In the ethnic borderlands, I met Burmese stationmasters who lived in isolation, unable to integrate because they were considered foreigners. In the north, when traveling with a Burmese man along an abandoned railway, we were detained and interrogated by a Kachin soldier, who suspected my companion of being a spy, simply because he was ethnic Burmese. In Rakhine, a railway in the state capital of Sittwe had segregated carriages for Rakhine and Rohingya passengers. In Pa-O territory, a young Pa-O man I traveled with was afraid to cross an invisible border into land claimed by the Shan. In countless ways like these, communities have become siloed, making it harder for resistance groups to now unify against military rule.

Your book details how important the development of railways and other vital infrastructure has been to the succession of generals who have ruled Myanmar since 1962. What role has transport infrastructure played in the military’s vision of development? And can you tell us a bit about the impact – social and environmental – of these projects?

The military’s vision of development places the generals and their new capital of Naypyidaw at the center. Radiating from the capital are new roads and railways, built since the 1990s, that connect the city with every state and region. Shadowing these railways and roads are new military bases and factories – essentially, a sprawling military supply chain. Much of this infrastructure stops just short of the country’s borders, orientating the state inwards towards the military-controlled core.

If this sounds more like military strategy than a vision of development, that’s because it is! This became clear to me one evening, when I was traveling with a Burmese journalist along a railway in Magway in central Myanmar. We stopped to explore a small, abandoned station. Nearby, outside a military base, was a large sign that read: “Only when the Tatmadaw [military] is strong will the nation be strong.” This philosophy for decades now has transformed even apparently mundane development tasks like building bridges into exercises in the abuse of power.

The social and environmental burden, as you might imagine, has been significant. In the 1990s, soldiers rolled into villages along new railway routes, forcing one person from every household to spend weeks, sometimes months, working in the jungle without pay, food, or shelter. At established camps, workers built their own bamboo shelters, but most people I interviewed had simply slept on the jungle floor. Anyone who tried to escape risked being beaten, tortured, or killed. It’s believed that thousands if not tens of thousands of people died, including from starvation and disease.

Even when the practice of mass forced labor on infrastructure projects ended, the junta’s disregard for civilian lives continued. In Magway, for example, crony contractors built a railway that blocked the flow of water to the Ayeyarwady, Myanmar’s largest river. In the monsoon, all along the railway route, homes are swept away.

In the book, you observe how China has now largely replaced Great Britain as the world’s railway-building superpower. In Myanmar’s case, this involves a planned railway line from Yunnan province to Myanmar’s coast at Kyaukphyu – an update of a line that was planned, but never completed, under the British. What is the strategic and economic logic of this line, and how does it compare to those lines built by the colonial government?

Myanmar occupies a highly strategic position between India and China. Because of this, proposals to build a railway across the country date back almost to the invention of the railway itself. The British wanted to access the fabled wealth of the Chinese interior, and to counter French influence in the region – building a railway was a major incentive for the British invasion of Mandalay. At the time, the Burmese King Mindon warned that building a railway through the mountains that surrounded his territory would be impossible. He turned out to be right, and the British eventually gave up at Lashio, some 100 miles from the Chinese border.

Since the 1990s, China has taken the project up again and is now building a high-speed railway in the other direction, across its southwestern Yunnan Province to Myanmar’s border. The idea is that eventually it will be extended through a chain of cities in Myanmar to the Indian Ocean coast. For China, this is a strategic priority, because it would reduce its reliance on vulnerable shipping routes.

But geography still poses the greatest challenge, and tunneling through the mountains on the Chinese side of the border has been extraordinarily slow. In 2017, Chinese media reported that construction teams working 24 hours a day had made just 156 meters of progress in more than two years, on just one of 40 planned tunnels along the route.

The research and writing of your book took place either side of the February 2021 coup, which has engulfed much of the country in conflict. How do you place the latest spell of military rule in the context of the history that you recount in the book? Do you think the current conflict will lead to a final reckoning with the more toxic legacies of British rule in Myanmar?

With hindsight, it now seems obvious that a moment like this would come. The generals invested vast resources into building themselves into a position of power, and they clearly weren’t planning to give that up. On the other hand, their brutal methods have given almost everyone in Myanmar a personal reason to despise them, and a stake in fighting for a future without military rule.

The most toxic legacy of British rule, in my view, is a centralized and highly militarized state that uses violence for extraction. It’s obviously too early to say what Myanmar without the military might look like. But the decentralized nature of the resistance, for all its challenges, has very much created the possibilities for a fairer alternative.