On This Day

The Day the Burma Road Between Myanmar and China Opened

By Wei Yan Aung 10 January 2021

YANGON—On this day in 1939, the Burma Road, a transport route linking Myanmar (then Burma) with southwest China was officially opened. It was built while Myanmar was a British colony to convey military supplies from Britain and the US to Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government of China, which was at war with invading Japanese forces.

The 716-mile-long (1,152 km) road linking Kunming in China and Lashio in Myanmar’s Shan State took some 300,000 workers around 19 months to build at a cost of £375,000 (nearly £25 million, or about 45 billion kyats, in today’s money).

Hundreds of thousands of tons of military weapons were transported by rail from Yangon Port to Lashio, and then conveyed to Chongqing in China.

Fearing that Japanese forces would use the road to invade Myanmar, local people and newspapers raised objections to its construction. For its part, the Japanese government was opposed to the presence of the supply line and asked the British government to close it down.

In July 1940, with Britain facing the prospect of defeat in the war in Europe, Prime Minister Winston Churchill yielded to the Japanese government’s demands and closed the road for three months.

Japan, which was attempting to annex all of China, took steps to invade Myanmar, partly to cut off the Burma Road, which was the key to maintaining Chiang’s resistance, and partly to destroy British and US political, military and economic hubs in Asia.

Sent to Myanmar on a mission to cut off the Burma Road supply line, Japanese Colonel Suzuki Keiji (known in Myanmar as Bo Mogyo) came into contact with young Burmese nationalists. He managed to arrange military training in Japan for 30 recruits, including the future independence hero General Aung San, who would later form Myanmar’s first modern army.

With its invasion of Myanmar in 1942, Japan cut off Lashio and the Salween River from China, marking the demise of the Burma Road. Not much of the original road, which was built through high mountains, survives today, but some parts of the route are still visible and can be traveled.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko