The spectacular colonial-era Gokteik viaduct is a vital link between northern Shan State and Myanmar’s central plains. Now more than a century old, it’s in danger of collapsing. (Libby Burke Wilde)

Shadow tracks: The dark history of Myammar’s railways

In an extract from her new book, On the Shadow Tracks: A Journey through Occupied Myanmar, former Frontier editor Clare Hammond describes travelling to the Kayah State capital of Loikaw on a railway that was built in the 1990s with mass forced labour.


My companions in the carriage were two dozen men, and most of them fell quickly asleep, as the train snaked through the rolling plains. The villages we passed were monochrome, nestled tightly among the low hills and encircled by bamboo forest. There were no vendors on the train, and the small, sleepy stations were deserted.

All afternoon, the patchwork fields rolled on, with the view broken only by rows of eucalyptus trees. As the light shifted and the shadows lengthened, and the train twisted through tunnels and between the hills, I remember this last part of the journey as if it was a dream. My companions only woke up towards evening, and it was almost dark when we began to slow down; to the east was the southern end of the lake, and we were pulling into a town.

The man who had been sitting opposite me pulled on a grey hoodie, and began packing his belongings away.

“I am army,” he said, in English, when he was done. “Soldier. Pekon Township.”

“Myanmar army?” I asked him, surprised that I hadn’t identified him as a soldier.

“Yes. Soldier,” he repeated and just like so many men I had met across the country, he mimed firing a gun.

Another man who had been sleeping beside him was now awake and pulling out an army jacket from beneath his seat. I had noticed it when he boarded the train, but hadn’t thought much of it, because civilians in Myanmar often wear camouflage too. I had noticed his gold ring set with jade and diamonds earlier in the afternoon, but because he was wearing a cheap patterned shirt and a scruffy paso, I had assumed it was a fake.

“Are you a soldier?” I asked him, and he nodded.

I looked again around the carriage. One by one, the young men who had been dressed in civilian clothing and who I had assumed were traders, stood up and began to pull out green canvas satchels and metal boxes from beneath the seats, and to dress themselves in army jackets and hats.

The train was stopping now at Pekon Station, where there was a large military base.

The stations on the railway to Loikaw town were overgrown in 2016, reflecting how little the railway was used. (Clare Hammond)

“I am sergeant clerk,” said the first man, pretending to type on a computer. “Army, staff.” He pointed at my notebook, which I had been writing in all afternoon.

“You, writing,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, and smiled.

He nodded; he had been watching, and I wondered now whether he had wanted to tell me earlier who he was.

The station was illuminated by small lights strung from the trees. When the train stopped, women emerged from the shadows carrying plates of food, which they offered to the soldiers, who were now passing down their luggage to each other through the windows. Among the last pieces of luggage were several red-and-yellow metal boxes, each around two feet long and a foot wide.

“Sniper,” said the man with the jade ring, pointing at one of the boxes, and he smiled.

For the rest of the journey, I was alone in the carriage with two scruffy children wearing football kits, who had clambered onto the train at Pekon town. I wondered how many times on my journey I had been travelling with soldiers and hadn’t noticed. I had spent so long now on trains in Myanmar that I hadn’t found it strange there was no timetable for this service, or that there were just a handful of people on this train, which ran despite what must have been a huge expense. The railway department was providing a service for the army, but then that shouldn’t have surprised me. There was a new government, but nothing about how the railways were run had really changed.

As trains shuttled troops back and forth from the military’s bases in southern Shan State to its bases in Kayah State, the Karenni festival that sprawled across the railway tracks – which I was attending with Clement – was in full swing. When the daily train passed through the festival ground later that night, the vendors would move their stalls to let it through, before setting them up again on the tracks.

These were two separate worlds: while the junta’s railways connected places that were deserted, or inhabited by soldiers, just beyond the tracks, community life thrived. This was particularly true in the places that had always resisted centralized rule. Knowing that the state offered them nothing, people here had built what they needed for themselves; as a result, community life in these borderlands was stronger and more resilient than anywhere I had ever been.

Here, all around the railway, there were no Myanmar soldiers to be seen. Instead, at the wine station, I was surrounded by young men who spoke more freely than I had heard anyone in Myanmar speak before. This was a rebel stronghold, and many of them were Karenni soldiers.

The author Clare Hammond travelling from Kachin State to Mandalay in 2017. (Libby Burke Wilde)

Clement and I were joined in the afternoon by a family of eight brothers, who were opium farmers, and several of them had been forced to work on the railway. But this wasn’t what they wanted to talk about. Instead, the eldest brother was now describing how Karenni men in the 1990s had been forced to act as porters for the military in its campaigns against Karenni troops.

When the men returned from the battlefield, they looked like animals, he told us.

“They could not eat or talk – they could not even ask for a smoke,” he said. He had been forced to work as a porter himself, for months at a time, carrying bullets and food for the soldiers, surviving on little more than fish paste and a handful or two of rice a day, and sleeping in the jungle in the winter without a blanket.

“Sometimes when an army truck brought fifty or sixty people back to the villages, their clothes were torn, or they had no clothes at all, and they couldn’t even walk, they just lay on the side of the road,” he said. After carrying heavy loads for weeks, their shoulders were swollen and covered with welts and open wounds.

Not everyone came home. Two days earlier, Clement’s godmother Bi Pu had told us that her son and his friends had been detained while working in the fields, and forced to act as guides for the military in the mountains. They did as they were told, carrying the soldiers’ equipment, until they came across a group of Karenni insurgents.

“They fought,” Bi Pu told us, “and a bullet hit my son, and there was a lot of blood coming out and he was screaming and crying and asking for help. Nobody dared to help him, even though he did not die straight away.”

She and her husband harnessed their cow to a cart and rode into the jungle to retrieve their son’s body, and they carried him back to the house and buried him. After that, she told us, she fell into a deep depression. She was pregnant at the time, and when she gave birth to another boy she couldn’t care for him, and he died after an unhappy year.

“I was sick,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep, I didn’t want to eat or drink, and I thought of nothing but my son for almost ten years.”

After the soldiers killed her son, Bi Pu said she lost all fear of the army, and of dying, and when she came across soldiers in the village, her other sons had to hold her back, to stop her from attacking them. It wasn’t just Bi Pu who had lost her fear. One man had told me that he had been so angry while building the railway that he had thrown handfuls of soil into a soldier’s face. Another man, a cow trader, said that when a group of soldiers ordered him to hand over his cows, he ignored them, and when they pointed his guns at him and threatened to kill him, he dared them to go ahead.

The people here were surrounded by stories like this, and strengthened by them. But what did the future hold? Nobody here was optimistic about the political transition. They didn’t trust the Bamar people, Clement explained, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father after all was the founder of Myanmar’s armed forces.

“The army wants to be the father of the country, but we could never call them a father from our hearts,” one of the brothers said. “We only give them respect because we are afraid.”

Not only this but Aung San Suu Kyi was willing to negotiate with the military, and had made it clear that she saw a place in Myanmar for the armed forces her father had founded. The political transition was, in Clement’s eyes, a Bamar struggle, between people with different visions for a Bamar nation.

Here, he said, the leaders were, and had always been, Karenni. It was the Karenni armies who protected the poppy fields in the mountains and who taxed the opium trade, the region’s most lucrative business, and it was the Karenni armies who would fight to end the Bamar occupation, when the time inevitably came.

On the Shadow Tracks: A Journey through Occupied Myanmar is published by Allen Lane and is out on June 6. Order your copy (hardback, ebook or audiobook) here.

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