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Tea Leaves

In Myanmar's remote north, China is the key

Irrawaddy town that inspired Orwell's 'Burmese Days' hopes for BRI prosperity

A Myanmar woman spreads out fish to dry in the sun. (Photo by Lindsay Stubbs)

Katha, on the Irrawaddy River in northern Myanmar, is best known as the inspiration for "Burmese Days," a fictional critique of British colonialism by the English novelist George Orwell. A century after Orwell worked in Katha as a colonial police officer, however, the remote town's future may depend on its links to a newer (and older) foreign power -- China.

Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, spent five years in Myanmar, then known as Burma, returning to England in 1927 after a final posting to Katha, which he called Kyauktada. Later novels such as "Animal Farm" and "Nineteen Eighty-Four" are more famous, but it is "Burmese Days," published in 1934, that has become a seminal text for students of colonialism in both Western and Asian universities.

For me, as for Orwell, the best way to get to Katha is by train from Naba, a small town on the line between Mandalay and Myitkyina in northern Kachin State. The locomotive is a German-made diesel, but I can almost smell the smoke from the steam engine that pulled Orwell's train along the same tracks a century ago.

Next morning I wake up in the recently built Hotel Katha, near the railway station, and take a short walk to the riverfront to watch dawn break over the Irrawaddy, with the still waters bathed in soft pink and mauve shades. In a scene typical of Myanmar's rural towns and villages, rickety carts drawn by diminutive ponies tout for fares along the riverfront promenade. Toward midday a Burmese woman sporting a maroon hat starts spreading fish on a trestle to dry in the sun.

Modern Katha is a small town with a population of about 27,000. But there are many reminders of the scenes that inspired the novel. The model for the house occupied by "Mr. Macgregor," the local deputy commissioner, still exists, though it is somewhat grander than Orwell's description -- a two-story brick-and-timber structure, rather than a bungalow, better befitting a colonial administrator of the times.

The train to Katha, waiting in the early morning to depart from Naba. (Photo by Lindsay Stubbs)

I borrow the key from a caretaker and wander through it. The house now serves as a museum of the colonial period, including Orwell's time in Katha and the British campaign in Burma in World War II. A building reputed to be the "English Club" mentioned in the novel is still standing, as is the house where Orwell lived, coincidentally still occupied by a policeman whose dark-blue official vehicle is parked out front.

I return to Katha railway station, where a climactic scene in "Burmese Days" takes place. In the novel, "Lieutenant Verrall," a military police officer, has boarded the train bound for Mandalay to avoid marrying a female admirer. She arrives at the station "to see the train draw out of the station and gather speed with a series of deafening snorts."

As I stand on the platform, it is easy to envisage this scene nearly a century ago. The station has a large rain tree overhanging both the stationmaster's office and the platform, providing welcome shade. But the train no longer goes to Mandalay, just to Naba, from where one can pick up a southbound train to Mandalay. And the diesel-powered locomotive is limited by the dilapidated track to just 30 kph.

The Deputy Commissioner's house in Katha. (Photo by Lindsay Stubbs)

Improved rail communications are essential if Katha is to benefit fully from Myanmar's steadily improving economy, reducing its links with the colonial past and opening a more prosperous future. But the real prize would be a link to neighboring China's Yunnan Province, which would bring international trade and commerce linked to Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative.

Right now, that looks speculative. Beijing and Naypyitaw have agreed to a $9 billion rail link from Muse on Myanmar's border with Yunnan to Mandalay, with an extension to Kyaukphyu on the southwest coast of western Rakhine State and possibly to Yangon, Myanmar's business capital. This scheme has powerful backing from Beijing as part of the ever-widening BRI. But it would not pass through Katha.

A portrait of George Orwell hangs in the Deputy Commissioner's house. (Photo by Lindsay Stubbs)

Meanwhile, state-run Myanma Railways has begun work on a rail line from Katha to Bhamo, which lies a day east by river, and just 65 km from the Yunnan border. Bhamo lies on an old trade route to China, and many Myanmar people say it would provide a better link between the Chinese rail system and the country's main cities.

But work on the Katha-Bhamo railway was abandoned in May 2017 because of armed attacks on trains, probably by separatists belonging to the Kachin Independence Army or the Arakan Army.

It remains unclear whether the Katha-Bhamo link is dead or could be resuscitated, perhaps as an addition to the BRI-linked line or to complement a separate Chinese project to use the Irrawaddy to transport freight to Yangon and the Indian Ocean. The answer will depend in part on the wider prospects for a lasting peace settlement between Naypyitaw and Myanmar's armed separatist groups.

Ultimately, it will be Beijing that decides whether Katha reaps the full benefits of Myanmar's economic renaissance or continues to be best known as a relic of another country's remote imperial history.

Lindsay Stubbs teaches at Macquarie University, in Australia, and in 2018 completed a Ph.D. thesis on Myanmar's railways.

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