Wed, Apr 24, 2013 - Page 9 News List

A road paved with granite and hope

A highway being built in Myanmar’s isolated mountainous east is an emblem of change in the country, but also of how much remains the same

By Jocelyn Gecker  /  AP, MONG PAN, Myanmar

The drive out of Mong Pan to the eastern hills is slow, on a dirt road that enshrouds the countryside in a curtain of dust. It silhouettes farmers plowing fields with oxen in the early morning light. It casts a cloud over a woman kneeling at the roadside as she places offerings into the bowl of a barefoot Buddhist monk.

The road winds gradually up to the mountaintop village of Ywar Thar Yar, where ethnic Lisu women weave their multicolored, beaded clothing, as they have for generations.

Two years ago, when Burmese President Thein Sein inaugurated Myanmar’s first civilian government in five decades, the people of Ywar Thar Yar heard the historic news on their shortwave radios.

“We didn’t expect any changes here, but I’m surprised how fast change has come,” said the village teacher, Mu Mu Khaing.

“This year, for the first time ever, the village got books from the government,” she said, her eyes wide with emotion. “A big rice sack filled with school books just turned up one day.”

It was one of many firsts. The Burmese Ministry of Education recently told the village it would build a schoolhouse to replace a flimsy bamboo hut made by the community.

“Sometimes, I teach with an umbrella because the rain is coming through the roof,” Mu Mu Khaing said.

As she spoke, one student fell hip-deep through a hole in the floor, prompting an eruption of laughter from the students, who ranged in age from five to 13.

Mu Mu Khaing’s paycheck is bigger these days: Last year, for the first time in a decade, she got a raise that nearly tripled her monthly salary to 136,000 kyat, or US$170. Once the road is paved, it will be easier to pick up her paycheck — now a 10-hour walk downhill to Mong Pan. Small steps, perhaps, for the long journey ahead.

“My hope, my dream, is that the new road will lead our children to a better life,” the 45-year-old teacher said.

Aye Aye Win contributed to this report. (This story is part of Portraits of Change, a year-long series by The Associated Press examining how the opening of Myanmar after decades of military rule is — and is not — changing life in the Southeast Asian country.)

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