On the Shadow Tracks: A Journey Through Occupied Myanmar by Clare Hammond - review by John Keay

John Keay

Democracy Derailed

On the Shadow Tracks: A Journey Through Occupied Myanmar


Allen Lane 400pp £25

In 2014, the financial journalist Clare Hammond left her desk in Hong Kong to fly to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) in Myanmar (formerly Burma) to seek work as an investigative reporter. The suppression of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement was being extensively covered by others. Hammond, British and just twenty-six, sensed that events in Myanmar were equally deserving of attention. She joined the staff of an English-­language paper there, made contacts, gunned her laptop and, while still ‘grappling with … a formidably complex history’, set off to investigate the state of the country. She ended up staying six years in Myanmar, covering it from south to north. 

Her timing was spot-on. In 2015, the generals who’d ruled Myanmar for the past half-century gambled on holding an election. Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate and daughter of the country’s independence leader, emerged from fifteen years’ detention to lead her National League for Democracy to a landslide victory. Tentatively, even fearfully – for the state administration was still dominated by the all-powerful military – Suu Kyi’s civilian government began easing restrictions on travel and the media and soliciting international aid and investment. Reclusive Myanmar was ‘opening up’ – or was it?

Hammond’s travels were mostly by train. On the Shadow Tracks is a brave and disturbing account of Myanmar’s recent history, which is explored through the prism of its railways. The railways tracks referred to in the book’s title are shadowy because they come and go. In some places, such as

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