Thanbyuzayat – The Myanmar government has announced plans to complete a railroad and highway to promote economic development in areas inhabited by ethnic minorities on the route of the Thailand-Burma Railway built by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.

The rail link was built to transport military supplies from Thailand to Burma (now Myanmar). The section in eastern Burma was largely abandoned after the war since the area was controlled by armed insurgents associated with ethnic minority groups, such as the New Mon State Party and the Karen National Union.

However, restoration of the route became possible this year after the Myanmar government signed armistice agreements with both the NMSP and KNU.

Aung Min, minister of the President’s Office of Myanmar, who is in charge of peace talks with the two groups, said the railroad and highway would traverse a 100-kilometer stretch of the old railway, starting from Thanbyuzayat, the old railway’s terminus on the Burmese side, to Three Pagodas Pass on its border with Thailand.

The Myanmar government began field surveys on the route in mid-December, and Myanmar President Thein Sein has recently endorsed funds to cover surveying of the highway portion.

The Imperial Japanese Army began construction of the railway in July 1942 to connect Thanbyuzayat with Nong Pladuk, Thailand. The 415-kilometer link was completed in October 1943, and was built by British prisoners of war, Asian laborers and others.

Due to oppressive working conditions and constant epidemics, more than 70,000 workers are said to have died during the construction. An iron bridge of the railway, dubbed the Death Railway, in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, was the setting for the 1957 movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

Myanmar has announced plans for several special economic zones along the Thai border to aid economic development in areas heavily populated by ethnic minorities, including one in the Three Pagodas Pass area, according to Aung Min.

On the Thai side, a highway has already been built from Bangkok to near Three Pagodas Pass.

In addition to plans to connect with this highway, the government plans to discuss with the Thai side the possibility of reviving the defunct section of the old railway between Myanmar and Namtok, Thailand. It hopes to attract foreign manufacturers through infrastructure improvements in the special economic zones, Aung Min said.

With plans to develop a port near Mawlamyine, capital of Myanmar’s Mon State, a new railroad and highway could become a trade artery connecting India and Europe with Thailand and Vietnam, where many Japanese companies have factories.

While Aung Min said his government welcomes foreign funds in the construction, indicating that overseas development aid would be accepted, he added that Myanmar would also fund the project.