Main picture Stonecarvers’ workshops at Mahamuni Paya, Mandalay Above A soldier buys a
slice of watermelon at Bago station as he waits for the train to depart
Off the rails
Crossing the Burmese country, 2006
‘WE DON’T HAVE religious freedom,’ says a young Lisu man on the 57-up train from Mandalay to Myitkyina in Kachin state. ‘We cannot build new churches, and, legally speaking, we cannot have private prayers at home.’ As I tuck into my dinner, he proceeds to define the problem that Burma faces as a religious one. It is an angle that some journalists have taken when writing about Burma, even though the root of the problem is political. On the other hand, it is far too simplistic to assume that restoring democracy or releasing Aung San Suu Kyi will bring an end to Burma’s woes. Nonetheless, the young man I’m talking to at the restaurant carriage doesn’t look like the type who would exaggerate the facts. He doesn’t need to. He lives across the Irrawaddy from Myitkyina. Tourists are barred from crossing the river to his village, where there is no electricity. Water comes from the communal well. His grandparents had originally come from Yunnan – Chinese missionaries converted most of them in the Thirties. In Burma, the Lisu is erroneously listed as a dialect group of the Kachin when in fact, they are a unique ethnic group with at least three different dialects. The next day, a railway employee shows me the tattoos on his chest and indicates with a pose that he used to be a boxer. Perhaps the swaying motion of the train carriages is particularly conducive for strangers to open up and share their lives. More importantly, to take the Burmese railway from Yangon up to Myitkyina is to zip through a bewildering range of physical and human landscapes – enough even for a casual visitor to realise the immensity of Burma’s nation-building process.