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Tea Leaves

In rural Myanmar, rail lines founder while military spends

Aging Shan State trains are local lifelines but starved of public funds

The train at Taunggyi, waiting to depart for Saikkhaung  (Photo by Lindsay Stubbs)

The pre-dawn air is crisp at Saikkhaung village, in Myanmar's largely rural Shan State, as I board the 5 a.m. train for the three-hour journey to Taunggyi, the state capital. Women sit on the floor in the passenger coaches, stringing together sardine-sized fish to be sold in the daily market near Taunggyi railway station, alongside fruit, vegetables, cotton longyis (sarongs) and skewered field rats, fat with pilfered corn and ready for the grill.

The passengers, mostly ethnic Shan and Pa Oh women, make me feel welcome; they see few foreign travelers. Their head-dresses are distinctive: many sport colorful cotton towels, commonly in green, red or tan. Some have brightly colored magenta or blue woven Shan bags draped casually around their necks.

I had arrived in Saikkhaung the previous day on the train that takes the women home from the market. At the first stop, the village of Hpa Mun, two young sisters alighted, one wearing a broad hessian headband supporting a wicker basket on her back. Her hands were needed for her son, wrapped tightly in a maroon-and-black cloth against her chest.

At Kakku, nearly two hours' ride from Taunggyi, we passed the site of more than 2,400 Shan-style stupas (Buddhist commemorative monuments) dating back many centuries. Tourists come here, but rarely by train, and the stationmaster's office was boarded up. Crops such as onions, garlic and pineapples grow in the fertile volcanic soil, and Shan women with broad straw hats were working in the fields.

We reached Saikkhaung at 5:15 p.m., and I slept in the stationmaster's office, on a bare bench with a thin piece of green carpet as a bed. Luckily I had brought my own cotton blanket. No accommodation is licensed for use by foreigners in Saikkhaung.

A Myanmar woman with her son clutched tightly to her chest (Photo by Lindsay Stubbs)

The line from Taunggyi to Saikkhaung is popular but isolated from the rest of the Myanma Railways network, and there are just two trains a day -- one in each direction. Each comprises a tired diesel locomotive (manufactured by Alstom of France in 1987) and two blue-and-brown, South Korean-made "Ordinary Class" passenger coaches with wooden seats. The seats are serviceable, but less comfortable than the plastic seats in Ordinary Class carriages on some other Myanma Railways routes.

Taunggyi station is large, but with just two trains a day the railway staff have little to do. A 33 km line to Shwe Nyaung, a station on the national railway network that is close to a World Heritage Site at Inle Lake, closed in 2013. But while the railway molders, government funds are being poured into a new military academy, grandly described as "No. 4 University Training Corps," which overshadows the disused railway track.

Myanmar's National League for Democracy government, led since its 2015 election victory by Aung San Suu Kyi, is unable or unwilling to rein in military spending. In the 2017 national budget, only 20 billion kyat ($13.2 million) was earmarked for the railways -- less than 0.1% of the budget -- compared with 2,878 billion kyat (13.9%) for the military.

In the last four years, Myanma Railways has closed services on 36 routes in step with a policy that prioritizes revenue-generating lines. The railway faces growing competition from cars and buses, and its network of nearly 8,000 km of track is in poor shape.

Passengers at Taunggyi with their distinctive head-dress  (Photo by Lindsay Stubbs)

Passengers on some lines must put up with carriages bouncing on the track because of poor ballasting on narrow-gauge rails. Many locomotives and passenger coaches are aging, and passenger numbers fell from 76 million in 2008 to 46.5 million for the year to March 31, 2018.

All this leaves little space for rural lines such as the one from Taunggyi to Saikkhaung. Yet, the government is desperate to attract visitors -- particularly after the military's brutal expulsion from late 2016 of more than 800,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar's western Rakhine State, drew international condemnation.

Shan State, far to the east of Rakhine, is also riven by ethnic tensions. But it has much to offer as an attractive destination for tourists, and in agricultural output. Both industries would benefit from better rail services, which would also help local people to share in the prosperity that Myanmar's shift to democracy and growing commercial openness are delivering in the country's big cities.

Ancient stupas at Kakku (Photo by Lindsay Stubbs)

The Saikkhaung line may be old, and its rolling stock well past its use-by date, but services such as the one from Taunggyi are the lifeblood of such rural areas. The villagers are very different from the fast-rising and increasingly prosperous middle class of Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital, but they are the heart of rural Myanmar.

Rebuilding the railway line from Taunggyi to Shwe Nyaung and improving the Saikkhaung service would pay significant dividends in alleviating poverty and assisting future economic development, if not in immediate profits. Perhaps Suu Kyi should take a railway trip to the market.

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

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