Arriving in Shan State on a night bus from Yangon, after hours hurtling along the Yangon-Mandalay highway, our bus turns east, and the road begins to change from the smooth, hard concrete of the expressway to the rocky, uneven paths that twist around the Shan Hills. Approaching Taunggyi, the road levels out again, with new blacktop and cement throughways stretching out from the city’s centre. Almost all the trees along the new roads have disappeared, fence posts taking their place. A checkerboard of crisscrossing barbed wire, intersecting cement walls, and lengths of bamboo stretch between the fence posts, marking out plots of land claimed by city residents, local farmers, and international investors.
This is the landscape that surrounds a village I refer to as Thayet Taw, just outside Taunggyi’s city limits, where, upon first glance, it would seem that Myanmar’s internationally-touted “transition” – and the processes of modernisation, development, and democratisation it entails – has taken hold.
A newly constructed factory lies just down the road, an internationally funded rural development centre is situated in a neighbouring village, and a soaring cell phone tower, erected just last year on the outer boundary of Taunggyi, rises overhead, providing phone service and internet in an area where coverage was spotty just years before. A proposal to resurface a poorly laid road between Taunggyi and Kayah State’s capital Loikaw offers further openings for transformed futures, with rumours that increased connection between the two cities might bring further investment to the scattered rural districts where villages like Thayet Taw are situated.
Yet, as evening draws near and Thayet Taw’s villagers meet over cups of tea and late-night meals, it’s not speculations of what the future holds that circulate, but rather descriptions of the past – a detailed accounting of who owned what land, what was farmed where, and for how long. The factory, rural development centre, cell phone tower, and road project, as local villagers contend, were all placed atop land formerly cultivated by rural, agricultural communities – communities for whom Myanmar’s “opening up” and Taunggyi’s recent growth represent not the emergence of a “new nation,” but rather a return to a past state of affairs.