I posted an article about the Burma Road in May of 2008. This week President Obama became the first U.S. President to visit Myanmar–an outreach trip that has gotten positive and negative comments on all sides, but is certainly historic and significant. After I received several emails this weekend, reminding me of the concepts I expressed in this article, I decided to revisit Burma myself!
Several years ago I spoke at a meeting of Veterans of the China-Burma-India Campaign from World War II. Some of them had been engineers involved in the building of the Ledo Road, later called the Stilwell Road which improved and connected to the Chinese portion of the Burma Road. Now you see why it has been described as one of the greatest engineering feats of WWII–and perhaps in any war.
The Ledo road portion of the Stilwell road ran about 1,100 miles in every kind of environmental condition from jungle to mountain top, and was built by 15,000 American soldiers and engineers (60% who were African-Americans) and 35,000 local workers.
In brief, here is the story: It was built to move supplies from India to China, through Burma. It was a vital supply line for our friends the Chinese, through the nation of our other friends, the Burmese, who we wanted to liberate from our bitter enemies, the Japanese, as we fought with our Allied friends Great Britain and Russia against the Axis powers, including our other bitter enemies, the Germans. (Great Britain had “annexed” Burma after a war in the late 1800s, and exiled the rulers to India.)
I’m not being flippant when I say this: Doesn’t it seem, throughout history and up until today, that we could save a lot of lives, property, money and heartache, if, every time there is a conflict, we could pretend that it is 50 years in the future and we’re allies? (Update note: The visit by President Obama may signal another change in relationships with this area.)
The Veterans group I spoke to years ago were a wonderful group of men and a few women, and they were patriotic and enthused about life. They laughed and sang and had a great time. One of them was talking to me about the 1,100 people, both soldiers and locals, who died while building the road. (Terrible construction accidents were a daily event, as were malaria outbreaks and strafing by Japanese planes.) He said, “It was Hell most of the time, now that I think about it. But in a strange way it was fun. We all had a job to do and we did it faster and better than anyone thought we could.”
Shortly after Buma was liberated and after they gained independence from the British Colonial system, the road stopped being used and the jungle reclaimed large portions of it. Many said the lives lost were even more tragic when one considered how little time the road was used and what became of our relations with China and Myanmar (as Burma is now called by the military government). Nevertheless, it was extremely valuable at the time. It was also a monument to brave men and women, doing the best they could in an incredibly challenging situation.
Since May 3rd, 2008, when Cyclone Nargis destroyed large portions of coastal regions, you have likely read a great deal about Myanmar. You know now, if you did not before, how repressive (one might even say, murderous) the military government is. Myanmar is also a country of tremendous religious intolerance, and non-Buddhists (entire communities are involved in some cases) are not only persecuted, they are exterminated when possible–statements to the contrary by government leaders notwithstanding! (Buddhist monks who are opposed to the current military regime are also being persecuted and executed.)
(Update note: This is evidence that even a faith that is viewed by most as peaceful, loving and accepting can be used by hateful and violent people. A chilling warning for people of all faiths.)
Ironically, because the nation is so undeveloped, from the viewpoint of industrialization, utilities, transportation and other aspects of a supportive infrastructure, it also is a natural preserve for many animals and birds that are no longer found elsewhere.
You can read about Burma/Myanmar on many websites, and I encourage you to do so–I will refrain from picking and choosing the links for you, because views vary and not everything can be substantiated. Perhaps this recent tragedy will finally bring the conditions of Mayanmar to the attention of the world and every respectable country will become involved in finding solutions. (Update note: I’m glad America is opening a door.)
While you are reading, read about the Ledo Road. It is a fascinating part of history. But read it with respectful remembrance as well, especially as we continue to honor those who serve in the military. As you look at the 24 switchbacks of the Ledo Road, think of the grit and determination involved in building it. Say thank you–about 45 times for every torturous curve in the road.