A winding, bumpy route through the misty mountains of eastern Myanmar is being paved into a smooth, two-lane highway, the type of road commonly found in other scenic stretches from the Alps to the Rockies.
However, here, in a rugged land long cut off by ethnic insurgency, there is nothing ordinary about a paved road.
For farmers and villagers who have spent decades in isolation, it is a potential path out of their impoverished hinterland to a better future. It is an emblem of how much is changing in Myanmar — but also how much remains the same.
The 320km road swerves along a mostly jungle-covered plateau of Shan state, a war-torn region that is known for drug smuggling and has been off-limits to foreigners for years.
As Myanmar emerges from half a century of military rule, one of its toughest challenges is to reintegrate areas like this one, where decades of fighting have engendered deep feelings of fear, mistrust and hatred of the army and, by extension, the government. Paved roads might be called Myanmar’s first peace dividend, an effort by its new civilian rulers to connect some of Asia’s poorest people to their own country and show them the benefits of joining the fold.
The Associated Press was granted rare permission to accompany UN experts into the restricted area, past valleys of emerald rice paddies and highlands inhabited by indigenous hill tribes. The UN mission, to visit opium poppy fields, traveled with a mandatory armed police escort since it is still a conflict zone.
Many along the way said they had never before seen a foreigner. The five-day journey was a glimpse into the challenge ahead: Can the government overcome the ingrained animosity among its ethnic minorities and achieve its goal of national unity?
Signs of hope mingled with reminders of a troubled past. Police filmed and photographed the news crew and villagers during many interviews. Some towns are barricaded by gates still locked at night to keep out armed rebels. The road is being paved with the help of child labor, a scourge of the military era. However, there were also teachers, farmers and nurses who described the construction and other recent developments as tangible signs of progress in a corner of the country that has been isolated by conflict, trapped by poverty and overlooked by the government.
About halfway along the route, the farming village of Dar Seid was excitedly awaiting the arrival of nearby work crews, said a young man who proudly introduced himself as the community’s first democratically elected leader.
Since his election in January, 34-year-old Sai Phone Myat Zin has immersed himself in the study of democracy and the needs of his ethnic Shan people, who have no electricity or running water.
“A good, paved road will change our lives,” he said.
For now, the road is a potholed dirt trail that bisects the village and every passing vehicle kicks up clouds of chalky dust.
“Our children have to walk 2 miles [3.2km] through dust and dirt to get to the closest school,” he added.
Of course, he said, Dar Seid’s needs exceed a paved road. He wants to win back farmland confiscated during military rule for bases and dams. He wants mobile phone service and irrigation so farmers do not have to rely on the rain.
“The road will not solve all our problems,” he said. “We have a lot of them.”