The overwhelming victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party in a by-election last Sunday hasn’t just signalled Myanmar’s switchover from five decades of military rule to democracy. It has also raised hopes of a World War 2 road from Assam to China being reopened after 1945 besides fast-tracking of several Indian projects in Myanmar such as Sittwe Port.
The 1,736 km Stilwell Road, named after American General Joseph Warren Stilwell aka Vinegar Joe, links Ledo in eastern Assam with Kunming in southern China’s Yunnan province through the Pangsau Pass on the Arunachal Pradesh-Myanmar border. Stilwell took two years to have the road built so that the Allies could supply Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang forces after the Japanese had cut an arterial rote in 1942.
The WW2 road, last used by the Oxford-Cambridge Overland Expedition in 1955, stretches 61 km in India, 1,033 km in Myanmar and 632 km in China. Much of the Myanmar portion is controlled by Burmese rebels and drug cartels.
“Stilwell Road isn’t just a piece of near-forgotten history; it is a relentless journey towards economic cooperation between Northeast India and Southeast Asia. We hope democratisation will enable Yangon to have a more rational view on liberalisation and economics will have precedence over narrow geo-political sectarianism,” said Assam industries minister Pradyut Bordoloi.
Bordoloi represents Margherita assembly constituency, wherein lies the coal-rich Ledo town. The Stilwell Road starts barely 200m west of Lekhapani railway station, Indian Railway’s ‘last frontier’.
“The pace of friendship and cooperation between New Delhi and Yangon has been increasing over the past decade, and political developments in Myanmar will not slow things down. Stilwell Road is close to our hearts, but we are going by what the Myanmar government has prioritised in terms of road infrastructure there. For instance, we have improved the 160 km Friendship Road (from Tamu on Manipur border to Kalemyo in Burma) that we helped build in 2001 besides focusing on the Sittwe Port project,” DoNER minister Pawan Singh Ghatowar told HT from New Delhi.
Sittwe is located on an estuarial island created at the confluence of the Kaladan, Mayu, and Lay Mro rivers emptying into the Bay of Bengal. Estimated at Rs 550 crore in 2008, the project is part of the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Facility envisaging connectivity between Indian ports on the eastern seaboard at Sittwe in Myanmar and then through river transport and road to Mizoram. The Kaladan river is navigable up to a point near the Mizoram-Myanmar border.
“Kaladan-Sittwe is crucial for Mizoram and Northeast India’s economic uplift, and we hope the political tidings in Myanmar will fast-track the project besides facilitating more people-to-people interactions and better border trade,” Mizoram chief minister Lal Thanhawla said from state capital Aizawl.
China, incidentally, had upstaged India in 2011 for construction of a 312 km stretch of the Stilwell Road from Myitkyina in Myanmar to Pangsau pass on the Indian border. New Delhi had in 2001 inked proposals with Yangon for building 230 km of the road from Ledo to Tanai in Myanmar.