Myanmar – Conflict Within – Exploitation from Neighbors

UNICEF poster of child soldier.
UNICEF poster of a child soldier.

The UNICEF poster shows what is happening in Myanmar – children are fighting a war rather than attending school. There is a struggle between the government, who wants to claim the land, and the people, who want to harvest the gold, jade, teak, and opium as they have forever.

First class sleeper on train from Mandalay to Myitkyina.
First class sleeper on the train from Mandalay to Myitkyina. I shared a car with three other women that had a bathroom with a hole in the floor.

I bought a ticket for a first-class sleeper on the train from Mandalay to Myitkyina, knowing the Kachin and Shan guerrillas were fighting in the area, and it was possible the military might block my travel.

Stupas in village from train.
Buddhist stupas in a village as seen from the train.

Along the way, I saw the presence of Buddhists openly challenging the Muslims.

Fields from train.
Fields from the train.

The countryside looked quiet and it appeared as though everyone lived in peace with each other.

Myitkyina train station.
Myitkyina train station.

But once I arrived in Myitkyina, I hit barriers. Note that travelers must register with Immigration at the train station or airport; otherwise, you travel at the risk of being detained.

Site of historic WWII battle.
Site of historic WWII battle.

     The Myitkyina railroad station was the site of a decisive battle in World War II. Winning Myitkyina with its airstrip and rail station gave the Allies control of Northern Burma and a chance to reconnect India with China via the Burma Road.

Suprabum Road
Suprabum Road leading to northern Myanmar.

I hoped to travel up the Suprabum Road to the Hukwang Valley but was stopped by Immigration. So I visited the local market instead and tried to regroup where the fruits are unlike anything I’ve seen in the western world.

Unusual fruits

Medicine vendor

This vendor felt sorry for me and refused payment for some traditional remedies.

Likewise, there was no western medicine Natural rememdiesto rid me of the horrible cold I got on the frigid train ride. They don’t have pharmacies in Myitkyina but a wide assortment of natural remedies are sold at the market.

Chinese in Myanmar

While shopping, I was struck by the presence of so many Chinese in the area.   Later I would find out why.

Tuktuk and motor bikes
Tuktuk and motorbikes for hire

 Since I couldn’t go to the Hukwang Valley, I paid for a driver and motorbike to take me to the Mogaung Valley. I had a map from the Immigration office in Myitkyina showing me where I was allowed to travel.

Road to Mogaung
Road to Mogaung

     The road to Mogaung, or where the Chindits defeated the Japanese in World War II to secure the Allies’ position in Myitkyina, was dull… at first. Later I was interrogated by gun-toting Immigration guards on my return to town. The poor boy driving the motorbike practically peed in his pants, understandably so, when many are being killed in the battle between the government and the tribes over land rights.

Road will last only a couple of years.

     On the way to Mogaung, we were subjected to delays on the road the Chinese were building. Note the meager layers of bedding, gravel, and asphalt slurry. This road will last only a couple of years.

Hauling slurry seal in bucket

Chinese and the locals worked side by side, carrying buckets of boiling asphalt – something the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in the US would faint at.

Men women children road workers

Men, women, and children worked to build the road into the untamed wilderness.  Why? To harvest gold, jade, and teak. The workers spent months away from their families, so it was easy to entice them to use their earnings on opium to forget their loneliness.

Mining in Myanmar

Mining in Myanmar people and equip2

Ko Zaw Pharkant, a photographer who lives in Myitkyina, took these photos of the mines.

Another mine

It’s easy to scorn the devastation of land from mining.

Mining in Myanmar land

But how many of us wear gold or jade jewelry?

Mining in Mynamar equipment

It’s not that there is mining in Myanmar that concerned me. They should use the country’s natural wealth to improve the standard of living.

Mining Myanmar land and lodging

Yet the mining in Myanmar was excessive and the wealth was not going to the people of Myanmar but to their trusted neighbor-the Chinese.

     The Chinese are not only building roads to harvest Myanmar’s wealth but there is an agreement between the two countries to build dams on the Chindwin and Irrawaddy Rivers, that would change life for those downstream, forever.

Expanding Myitkyina airport strip

    The Chinese are also expanding Myitkyina’s airport. Note the woman on the right in the above photo is carrying a pan of scalding asphalt to cover the thin layer of gravel on the airport runway. Unfortunately for the people of Myanmar, these improvements will last only a few years. Who will stop the Chinese?

Myitkyina WWII Airfield in background Where Historic Battle was fought

Myitkyina WWII airfield in the background. Site of Merrill’s Marauders historic battle.

   On November 8, 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party gained control of parliament (Hluttaw) which put them in a position to elect the next president of Myanmar.  Before elections, Suu Kyi proactively reached out to the over 135 tribes and 55 parties in Myanmar, including those in the Kachin and Shan states, where the civil war continues.

But Suu Kyi cannot become president because Burmese law states anyone with “legitimate children” who owe an allegiance to foreign powers is ineligible.  She has two sons with British passports. It is thought she will rule as a puppet president from a parliament seat.

     Will Suu Kyi and her National League of Democracy (NLD) be the harbinger of change that will lead Myanmar out of religious conflict (Buddhist against Muslim), find an economic solution (sign a truce with all tribes), and protect the natural resources of Myanmar from exploitation by their world neighbors?

Aung San Suu Kyi

Chindwin River Part II: Sometimes a Great Notion: Teak/Gold/Jade

There are plans to construct a dam upriver from Homalin to serve the Chinese. It will impact life for those living along the Chindwin and change the entire region in the future. 

Typical bamboo raft to transport goods locally.
Typical bamboo raft to transport goods locally.

Some houses on the river are made of teak. But many homes or bashas are made of bamboo.  As in India, bamboo is used for everything, from paper to particle board to knit-hats.

Commercial bamboo boat
Commercial bamboo boat

The teak is exported abroad. But many old practices are in existence until modern equipment can be transported to the logging sites.

Oxen used to haul cut logs instead of skidders
Oxen are used to haul cut logs instead of skidders.

Growing teak trees takes skill. The seeds must be placed in a fire, then soaked in water. Then it takes 45 days for the seeds to germinate.

Dozer lining up logs while workers have some fun in the water.
Dozer lining up logs while workers have some fun in the water.

Previously, Myanmar had implemented British Forestry practices with a 60-year rotation. But given the demand for teak, the regeneration time has been reduced and the quantity of the wood is not as good.

Ready to be loaded.
Stockpiles of teak that are ready to be loaded.

Logs are milled within the country rather than exported abroad to foreign mills, where the finished product fetches a higher price.

Ready to be put into rafts
Ready to be put into rafts

Due to a lack of roads in this region, most of the logs are tied together as a raft to be transported to the mill.  While watching the log rafts move down river, the novel Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey came to my mind.

Teak raft. Sometimes a Great Notion: Chindwin River January 2014
Teak raft on Chindwin River January 2014

The teak industry is labor intensive. It requires a mobile infrastructure that moves from one log camp to the next after a site has been harvested.  Barrels of oil are shipped to the roving logging camps to power portable generators.

Oil barrels transported to logging camps.
Oil barrels are transported to logging camps.

Wayward teak rafts are known to disappear, stolen by pirates before they reach their final mill destination.

Government permit tracker and log grader
Government permit tracker and log grader

Men are needed to cut, load, grade, and track the trees. Accounting records held by the government official in the above photo showed 100 logs ranging in size from 12ft diameter x 25ft long to smaller 7ft diameter x 22ft long logs weighing 287,000 tonnes, all contained within one logging raft. Logs that size are most likely from virgin forests, soon to be extinct. So what are the country’s revenue alternatives when teak production disappears? Gold, jade, and opium.

Surface gold mine. Hydraulic river mining next?
Surface gold mine. Hydraulic river mining next?

Gold and jade mines provide get-rich-quick job opportunities, but since this work is far from home, the men become bored. Enterprising dealers find ways to help them spend their free time and money on other forms of entertainment, such as opium.  It’s not unusual for workers to get lured by the good money then trapped by drugs.

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