Tag Archives: rangoon

Kalewa: 1942 Evacuation Route from Rangoon to India

January 3, 2014 After the fall of Rangoon in April, 1942, a bailey bridge was shipped to Shwegyn, ten km south of Kalewa, where those fleeing the Japanese 55th Divison were trapped on the east side of the Chindwin River.

Entrance to Kalewa from Chindwin River
Entrance to Kalewa from Chindwin River

The Rangoon residents then crossed the Chindwin and started the second leg of the evacuation route, on elephants or by foot, up the Moutaka Road along mountainous paths to Imphal, India . The route became known as the India-Myanmar Friendship Road.

indiamyanmarfriendshiproad

This town of 16,000 people, at the junction of two rivers, the Chindwin and Myittha, is approximately 115 years-old. To the east are the Swe Tha Min (Golden Deer) Mountains

Looking south-east on the Chindwin at Swe Tha Min (Golden Deer) Mountains. Note the junction with the Myittha River on the right.
Looking south-east on the Chindwin at Swe Tha Min (Golden Deer) Mountains. Note the junction with the Myittha River on the right.

On the west, towards India, are the Chin Mountains. Kalewa  continues to be a river and road link between Burma and India.

Looking west to the Chin Mountains. Note the bridge in the background, crossing the Myittha River, to the road leading south to Monywa
Looking west to the Chin Mountains. Note the bridge in the background, crossing the Myittha River, to the road leading south to Monywa

The local guesthouses are filled with businessmen interested in gold mining and teak lumber.

kaleguesthouse

And a few travelers, like me, who are not accustomed to squat toilets,

guesthousetoilet

bucket showers,

Hot water? Dream on.
Hot water? Dream on.

or having electricity only three hours a day, from six to nine in the evening, when phones and computers can be charged.

Lights out at 9 pm
Lights out at 9 pm

Other people make their living from tea, betel nuts,

A popular red 'chew' rolled in leaves, is lime paste, tobacco and betel nut.
A popular red ‘chew’ rolled in leaves, is lime paste, tobacco and betel nut.

 and coal.

About 100 pounds of coal on her head
About 100 pounds of coal on her head

According to the seventy-one-year-old elder, U Pho Htsin, the British came in 1885. Most of the original inhabitants were Chin and Naga from India.

Kalewa elder, U Pho Htsin
Kalewa elder, U Pho Htsin

Now, 40% are Chin, 58% Burmese and 2% from India with 98% Buddhist and the remaining population Hindu or Christian.

Young Chin boys wearing longyi typical of region
Young Chin boys wearing longyi typical of region

The monsoon, from June to August, is extreme. But during the dry months there is a significant risk of fire.  In 1962 and 1980 fires, from cooking stoves, destroyed most of the village.  All documents were lost. Now, Kalewa has three fire trucks.

Japanese made fire trucks
Japanese made fire trucks

In addition to river travel, there is a road from Monywa that takes about ten hours to travel.

How does that engine handle the monsoon?
How does that engine handle the monsoon?

West of Kalewa about 20 km, or a two-hour truck ride, is Kalaymo, with a population 300,000.  On January 7, 2014, all of the elected officials from the Sagaing Division met in Kalaymo to listen to Aung San Suu Kyi from the National league for Democracy.

Kalewa elected official on left and my guide, Mr. Saw, on right
Kalewa elected official on left and my guide, Mr. Saw, on right

Myanmar or Burma, is a country with 135 tribes and 9 common ethnic groups, one being Burmese. Before independence from Great Britain was finalized, in 1948, Myanma was the written name and Bama the spoken.  Not all citizens from the Republic of the Union of Myanmar are Burmese.  So the name of Myanmar is more inclusive than Burma, but old habits are hard to break. Many people still call Myanmar, Burma.

General Aung San 1915-1947
General Aung San 1915-1947

In 1947, Aung San, a thirty-two-year old Burmese revolutionary nationalist and founder of the modern army, secured a commitment from the British to give his country, Burma, independence within one year. Aung San had belonged to the Communist party and supported the Japanese during WWII, until March 1945, when he changed his alliance to the Allies due to the Japanese treatment of his people. He was assassinated within six months of securing his country’s independence from Great Britain, leaving behind a two-year-old daughter Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Ong san sue chee.)

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi attended Oxford, married Michael Arris, a Brit, and had two children. In 1988, a year of great upheaval in Burma, she returned home to attend to her sick mother. She spoke out against the dictatorship and was put under house arrest, on and off, until 2010.  In 1991 she received the Nobel Peace Prize as a human right’s activist.  Suu Kyi, who recently won political office, is actively pursuing the presidency. But there’s a law on the Myanmar books that says anyone running for president cannot be related to a foreigner, as she is—with a British husband, who died in 1999, and their two sons. The military is hesitant to endorse her, not wanting to upset the delicate relationship between their civilian-military government and democracy.  

Kalewa women
Kalewa women

When I travel, I foolishly ask about local politics. I was surprised to learn that although many of the men support Suu Kyi, they feel that at the age of 70, in 2015, she will be too old to be president. Perhaps because of the traditional role women play in Myanmar, I did not find any women who supported Suu Kyi.  Yet there is a resurgence of interest from democratic countries, who want to invest in Myanmar; and who support Suu Kyi. But I was told that rather than do business with super-powers, like the US, Europe, or Japan, the Burmese prefer to do business with their neighbors, the bourgeoning powers of India and China. In remote regions, like Kalewa, change is slow.

Looking north, up river, on Chindwin from Kalewa
Looking north, up river, on Chindwin from Kalewa

Suu Kyi is an inspiration to many, having single-mindedly dedicated her life to Burma, a country that has been under a brutal regime for many years. She is quoted as saying, “Fear is a habit—I am not afraid.” Having proven that, she has my vote.

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