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Five teams of top, young journalists set out from Myanmar's commercial hub of Yangon to better understand how the country is changing under a reform-minded government. Travel along with these 20 reporters — 11 Burmese and 9 American — as they journey the ancient Burma Road, through the country's capitals past and present, down the Irrawaddy Delta, onto Inle Lake and across Yangon itself at a critical time in the country's history.

Burma Road: China's path to influence in Myanmar

How Myanmar is working to wriggle itself free from the "empire next door."

MUSE, Myanmar — The only land route from China to the Burmese heartland follows the old Burma Road and continues on to the British colonial capital of Mandalay.

On a map, the route south from here on the Chinese border to the Burmese town of Lashio looks fairly direct. But on the ground, slow-moving trucks packed with rice for the kitchens of China’s Yunnan Province and smuggled motorbikes bound for Yangon negotiate stunning mountain switchbacks. On one of the few navigable routes in and out of the country, it is as if these twists and turns record the competing pulls of the foreign powers tied up in its history.

It’s along this 717-mile route that the wave of Chinese goods, people, and money that has washed over Myanmar for the last two decades has poured in. And it’s this wave of capital that in recent years has convinced the country’s ruling generals to embark on a march toward constitutional democracy — part of their bid to engage the West and avoid becoming a vassal of Beijing. In short, democracy is a market play for the Burmese government and its generals as much as it is a quest for freedom for the pro-democracy movement embodied by the Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

For China, Burma offers precious natural resources, fertile land, and an outlet for the country’s exports and bulging population. For the United States, the country is an integral part of its “Look East” policy, which aims to strengthen ties in the region and contain the rising superpower of China.

Thant Myint-U, adviser to the newly elected President Thein Sein and author of the acclaimed book “Where India Meets China,” believes Burma is at a "critical moment in its history" and one in which it is destined to play a much more important role in global economic and political matters.

“China followed policies that created a very negative image in this country. If China had done things differently, it would be thought of differently.”
~Thant Myint-U

And, he argues, nowhere is the evidence of China’s influence in this geopolitical equation more visible than along the Burma Road, where China is deeply invested in a hydroelectric dam and a natural gas pipeline and where its economic, cultural and political influence can be felt every mile of the way.

For most of time, Burma has stood apart from the rest of the world, separated first by geography then by a self-imposed isolationism that came with 60 years of military rule. With the world descending into World War II, the British and Americans built the road to supply Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists against China’s Japanese occupiers. In 1942, Japan would seize Burma from the British and briefly occupy it, too. Later, Chinese nationalists would go on to use northern Burma as a base for harassing Mao’s Communist government for years.

Along the road today, Chinese domination achieved under Burma’s military dictatorship looks irreversible. But Western investors are eagerly eyeing one of the last frontier economies, and American icons like GE and Coke have already set up shop in Yangon.

As the country continues its fragile transition to democracy, the hearts and minds of the Burmese people will determine the balance of these powers’ competing interests. From Muse on the Chinese border to Mandalay in the heartland, Burmese up and down the road expressed a wariness of the empire next door. They expressed, too, a cautious hope that American engagement will help lift their long oppressed and poor country. The trucks keep coming from the East, but the Burmese people are looking West.

As Burmese analyst and author Thant Myint-U put it, for many years, “China followed policies that created a very negative image in this country. If China had done things differently, it would be thought of differently. But now Burma will have to think about what’s best for Burma going and try its best not to harbor emotions … It just needs to think clearly about the road ahead.”

Passing Over Their Heads

In Burma, even when the Chinese are out of sight, it is hard to put them out of mind. The Burmese are reminded every time the lights go out. In a country rich in energy resources, power outages are a fact of life, and the hum of generators is audible all along the road.

In part, that’s because Burma’s isolated rulers sold off the country’s