The long strange story of the (disappearing) railway from Myanmar to southern China | So Good News
The Gokteik Viaduct after the end of World War II (c. 1947), showing damage from aerial bombing sustained during the Burma Campaign. / The author’s collection
Of Tony Waters and David Wohlers 31 October 2022
The history of railways in Myanmar is a strange one. For more than a century, influential businessmen have sought to link Myanmar by rail to the rest of the world. Apart from a brief two-year period during and immediately after World War II when the Japanese used prisoners of war to build the “Death Railway” between Bangkok and Rangoon (as Yangon was then known), the country’s railway system has remained isolated from the rest of the world. Myanmar has many railway tracks in the lowlands and beyond, but none cross a border. It is as if Myanmar were an island, rather than a nation that shares borders with five other countries.
An abundance of historical records show that the absence of a rail link to the wider world is certainly not due to lack of interest. This is especially the case for a link that would create a link between China and the Indian Ocean. But even after 120 years of various efforts to extend rail access from northern Shan State to China, a short link between the Chinese border (completed in 2022) and the railhead at Lashio (completed in 1901) remains unfinished. It seems that Burma’s highlands are no match for the world’s engineers, whether they came from the companies of British capitalists, the Myanmar military or from the People’s Republic of China.
What is the problem? Perhaps it is because whether they are from capitalist Britain, independent Myanmar or communist China, large capital projects such as railways are planned with a “high modernist” point of view. The high modernist point of view means that people are reduced to being wage laborers for the railroad, citizens of a larger nation-state, and farmers serving the global marketplaces. Myanmar’s highlands are notorious for producing small groups that eschew such discipline and subordination to labor markets or state capture, although the modern governments on the surface label these groups as “poor” and consider their militias weak. This is perhaps part of the reason why the high modernist planners of the last 120 years, with all their engineering skills, money and enthusiasm, have been frustrated regardless of what high modernist flavor they bring to the task of railway construction.
Great Britain19th century capitalists plan big
The Government of British India was the first to attempt to install the Rangoon to Kunming railway. In the late 1890s, British capitalists, intent on gaining market access to the highlands of southern China, convinced the British Parliament to frame the financing of the railway. The line was intended to stretch from Mandalay to Kunming. The biggest challenge, it was thought, was being in the engineering; The Gokteik Defile would require the largest railway bridge in the world to be built in a remote corner of a country that had been annexed by Britain just 15 years earlier. The solution, which exists today as the Gokteik Viaduct, was completed in just nine months in 1900-1901 by the Pennsylvania Steel Company of America under British contract. The line was then pushed through to Lashio where it was abruptly stopped as it is today.
The Lashio line proved profitable for at least some capitalists. The Burma Mining Company, which was owned by the American engineer Herbert C. Hoover (later President of the United States from 1929-33) was perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the underutilized line. Hoover’s company established a short spur to the Bawdwin mines in Shan State, where generations of Chinese silver miners had unpacked silver on pack horses, dumping the lumpy slag from their mines. This discarded slag was rich in lead ore which was economically shipped out via the new railway, generating a fortune for Hoover who became one of the richest engineers in the world. Hoover’s profitable use of the British-financed railway angered British officials so much that he was served with an ultimatum to either sell his mining operations in Burma or become a British citizen. As for the railway and the Bawdwin mines, they would go out of use. The mines were closed during the Great Depression, and the railroad continued to be operated as a local service line for Lashio.
World War II conquerors dream of railroads
British military planners began to look north on the eve of World War II in the 1930s, wary of Japanese designs on China and India. Instead of a railway, the Burma Road was built in 1937-38 so that the British could supply the Chinese, who were isolated by the Japanese blockade of the Pacific coast. The Japanese closed this route and the Allies began to supply southern China with an expensive air route “over the hump” of the Himalayas in northern Burma and southern China. As victory approached for the Allies, American and British planners revived dreams of a northern rail line as a way to take the war to southern China. But they were also frustrated. A rough road for motor vehicles was completed, but extensions of the Burmese railway system were never realized. As for the rough road, even that became overgrown and useless after World War II ended.
When Burma’s post-war independence governments looked north, they saw Chinese threat, not opportunity. Neither the Northern Railway nor other international lines were developed by the independent Burmese authorities, even as new railway lines were developed in the lowlands. Further planning for a railway to southern China awaited Chinese interest, which resurfaced in the early 21st century, as an economically powerful China looked outward and sought direct access to the Indian Ocean. The Mandalay-Kunming Railway was again on the engineering drawing boards at the turn of the century. Today, it is a dream for China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
21st century Chinese plans too
From a Chinese perspective, it is well known that the Myanmar port in Kyaukphyu, Rakhine State, would give China a port on the Indian Ocean. Myanmar’s military government established a port and special economic zone there in the early 2000s, and both a gas pipeline and an oil pipeline to Kunming were completed in 2013-14, enabling easier delivery of gas and oil from the Middle East to southern China .
A planned railway that would use the same Kyaukphyu port as the pipeline has proved more difficult for the Chinese to complete, despite their technical capacity to build an extensive network of high-speed railways in China. The railway from Kunming to Kyaukphyu port, despite extensive planning, has not yet been completed. As was the case for British capitalists and Allied military planners, the stretch of northern Burma frustrates the planners. In fact, in 2021, a high-speed railway was finally completed from Kunming to Ruili, right on the Myanmar border at Muse. Construction is still stalled there, having come face to face with the military dictatorship, which is once again confronted with a landscape where it cannot operate public education, schools, roads, customs or legal systems, much less a new high-speed rail transmission. goods to and from China. The revived military dictatorship is undoubtedly a difficult partner for the Chinese diplomats seeking to secure railway rights over northern Burma.
The still highly modernist railway dreams for northern Burma
Modernists, whether they were British capitalists, Allied militarists or Chinese Communists, have all attempted to establish a railway link to southern China. As with the canceled Myitsone Dam construction and dismantled Bangkok-Rangoon Railway, major infrastructure projects often remain incomplete in Myanmar’s highlands. On the one hand, this may reflect a healthy skepticism about foreign-funded infrastructure that enriches capitalists like Hoover and business interests in China. Such investors are focused on generating profits for their home markets, leaving little local development in their wake.
But this reluctance to engage with international capital perhaps also reflects a more general unease with the modern institutions that railways represent. Lowlanders and business people in general see only capital and profit when they cast their eyes over northern Myanmar. This tendency seems to apply to companies from Europe, China and even Naypyitaw. But perhaps the people of northern Myanmar also see something else – a world they are not a part of. The response to outside investment apparently creates political conditions that make the dreams of large capital projects such as railways, dams and mines so uncertain that they are never built or completed. Inevitably, this is done with the weapons of the weak, which in the case of northern Myanmar is the spread of politics, which from the perspective of modernization of the lowlanders are “disorganized.” But together they have a great capacity to frustrate the modernist ambitions of the lowlanders.
The Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military), so unsuccessful in suppressing the highland militia, is again learning about the weapons of the weak the hard way as it expands its war across northern Myanmar. But this is actually an old lesson. The current regime and its predecessors, including the British mercantile colonizers, Japanese militarists and Chinese business interests, never seem to be able to complete the last bit of railway connecting Kunming with Kyaukphyu.
Tony Waters is visiting professor in cultural studies at Leuphana University in Germany, and previously at Payap University Thailand, and California State University Chico. He frequently comments on Myanmar issues in The Irrawaddy and academic journals. E-mail address [email protected]
David Wohlers has worked as a civil engineer in the USA, and has been involved in engineering education in Myanmar.
Wohlers, David C. (2022). Potential structural deficiencies within the Gokteik Viaduct Railway Bridge in Upper Burma. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers-Engineering History and Heritage 175: 42–47.
Wohlers, David and Tony Waters (2022). The Gokteik Viaduct: A Tale of Gentlemanly Capitalists, Unseen People, and a Bridge to Nowhere Soc. Sci. 2022, 11(10), 440; https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci11100440