MYAWADDY, Karen State — Construction on a section of the Asean Highway Network from Kawkareik to Myawaddy in Burma is expected to be completed late this year, Karen State’s chief minister told reporters last week in Myawaddy.
The quality of the old Kawkareik to Myawaddy road, a major trading route between Burma and Thailand, has deteriorated in recent years, and its narrow width has forced the imposition of a system of travel along the route that sees traffic flow in only one direction each day. Vehicles bound for Myawaddy from Karaweik are allowed to pass one day, and travelers heading in the opposite direction are given the next day to make the trip.
As the crow flies, Kawkareik lies just 32 kilometers southwest of Myawaddy, but overland travel between the two points involves a drive through the Dawna mountain range—a two-and-a-half-hour journey along a 56-km road that can be dangerous to traverse during the monsoon season, when landslides along the mountainous route pose a risk.
Karen State Chief Minister Zaw Min said completion of the new highway from Myawaddy to Kawkareik is expected in late 2014, with some parts the roads already finished by a Thai construction company and Burma’s Ministry of Construction. The Asian Development Bank is funding the project.
The minister said the difficulties of hewing a new, wider passage through the Dawna range was slowing progress.
“After this road is finished, trade flow will be better than in the past,” he added.
The current road through the Dawna Range is less than four meters in width, and cannot support two-way traffic involving larger vehicles. In accordance with a minimum Asean standard, the new road will be two lanes and 10 meters wide to facilitate trade along the route.
“Buses will not need to wait a day to pass over the Dawna mountains after the road is finished,” Zaw Min said.
One section of the new highway, from Karen State’s Myawaddy to Thingan Nyi Naung, spans 17 kms and has already been completed. Construction on the remaining 28-km road from Thingan Nyi Naung to Kawkareik is ongoing.
“The Thingan Nyi Naung to Kawkareik road is almost finished, and all construction is expected to be done in late 2014,” Zaw Min said.
The new Myawaddy to Kawkareik road has been in the works since 2004, but construction was suspended in 2005 due to fighting in the area between the Karen Nation Union (KNU) and the government military. Construction resumed in 2006.
A taxi driver who frequently plies the Kawkareik to Myawaddy route told The Irrawaddy that commutes between the two points had already improved markedly.
“From Myawaddy to Thingan Nyinaung the route is very good for us to drive, just a 15-minute drive for 17 kilometers. … Some parts are already done, some are still under construction in mountain areas. It took only 50 minutes to Kawkareik [from Myawaddy],” he said.
Thin Thin Myat, chairwoman of the Myawaddy Border Traders Association, pointed out that traders from Myawaddy to Rangoon could lose up to a day waiting to cross the Dawna Range, adding that she expected trade between Myawaddy and Rangoon to pick up with the new road’s completion.
Myawaddy, which sits opposite the Thai city of Mae Sot, is the largest of five official checkpoints for overland trade between Burma and Thailand. Through Mae Sot, trade from other Asian countries makes its way to Burma’s commercial capital Rangoon and on to Upper Burma.
The Asean Highway Network aims to foster overland connectivity among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), as well as providing better links to neighboring China and India as the regional grouping works toward implementing an Asean Economic Community next year.