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.”
This part of Shan state is designated a black zone — areas that remain rebel strongholds, where battles with government troops raged in the jungles for decades. Shaky ceasefires signed over the past year and a half have paved the way for the roadwork.
The route starts outside the state capital of Taunggyi and heads east through government-controlled towns before climbing into the hills that give cover to rebels.
Here too live the hill tribes — the Pa-O, Lisu, Lahu, Shan and others — many of whom survive by growing opium poppies, the region’s main cash crop. The road ends in the mountain town of Mong Hsat, near the Thailand border town of Tachilek, and is being touted as a new trade route.
The construction itself is a reflection of the old Myanmar, repressed and impoverished under military rule that ended in 2011. East of Dar Seid, children are paid US$3 a day to carry baskets of rocks amid choking dust.
“Sometimes my eyes sting,” said Thein Thein Maw, a 14-year-old orphan girl who sleeps in a tent near the worksite. “But I’m used to it.”
Several stretches of sleek pavement have been finished ahead of next month’s rainy season, but the Burmese Ministry of Construction says completion of the work depends on the availability of funds. The project is part of a national plan to improve Myanmar’s dilapidated infrastructure. Only 22 percent of its 142,400km in roads is paved.
“We use machines to break rocks from the mountains, but the rest is done by hand,” Htay Thaung, a 65-year-old supervisor, explained as his crew fit together brick-sized rocks with smaller stones and gravel to lay a 30cm foundation.
Many portions of the road have foundations of granite, but his was a 1.6km path of gleaming white marble extracted from the nearby hills.
“This is going to be a very good road, a luxury road made from marble,” he said.
That is welcome news for farmers like Nay Lin, who was sweating nearby as he fixed a flat tire on his tractor with a bicycle pump.
“The road is terrible, I get flat tires all the time,” said the 32-year-old man, who sells his hogs at the market in Mong Pan, a 50km drive that takes him nine hours.
“I’ve never seen so much road construction,” he said, surveying the work crew and wiping his brow. “With a paved road, I can commute faster. It will help my business. I can spend more time working, and less time driving.”
After a bone-rattling ride around hairpin turns, bamboo groves and majestic banyan trees, the road dips into a valley and enters Mong Pan, which is gated like a medieval fortress. The ceasefires have resulted in less violence, but nobody is letting down their guard.
The town’s four entry points are padlocked every night at 6pm. A welcome sign lists all that is banned: bombs, narcotics, weapons, illegally logged timber, runaway prisoners.
Mostly, Mong Pan fears its neighbors from the highlands.
“We need a gate for security reasons. In the past it was not peaceful here,” checkpoint supervisor Sai Htin Lynn said, huddled near an open fire on a chilly morning after unlocking the town gate.
Outside Mong Pan, a dozen soldiers patrolled the road with machine guns, ammunition belts and mortar launchers. A round of explosions echoed in the distance, but villagers identified it as rock being blasted from the mountains to make the new road.
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.)