BANGALORE - Myanmar seems to have finally overcome its longstanding reluctance
to reopening the historic Stilwell Road, which crosses the northwest of the
country to link India with China.
Mahesh Saharia, chairperson of the Northeastern Initiative of the Indian
Chamber of Commerce, describes the gains from the reopening of the Stilwell
Road as "unimaginable".
The Myanmar government awarded a contract to rebuild a 312-kilometer stretch of
the road running from Myitkyina in Myanmar
to Pangsau Pass on the India-Myanmar border to China's Yunnan Construction
The award of the contract to a Chinese company is a setback to India in its
battle with China for influence in Myanmar, but the renovation of the
Myitkyina-Tanai-Pangsau Pass section of the road will benefit all three
countries, indeed the wider region, immensely.
The reopening of the Stilwell road could cut by 30% the cost of transporting
goods between India and China, providing a boost to Sino-Indian overland trade
in a few years.
Originally termed the Ledo Road, the 1,736 km Stilwell Road was built during
World War II from Ledo in Assam to Kunming so that the Western Allies could
supply Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang forces after another route had been cut by
the Japanese in 1942. It was renamed after General Vinegar Joe Stilwell of the
US Army in 1945.
It winds its way from Ledo in Assam through Jairampur and Nampong in Arunachal
Pradesh until it reaches the Pangsau Pass (aka the "Hell Pass") where it
crosses into Myanmar. The road then weaves through upper Myanmar to reach
Myitkyina before turning eastward to China where it culminates at Kunming, the
capital of Yunnan province. Roughly 61 km runs through India, 1,035 km through
Myanmar and 640 km in China.
After the war, the road fell into disuse. The Indian northeast and much of the
road's route through Myanmar were wracked by insurgencies. Myanmar's
inward-looking policy and avoidance of contact with the outside world, as well
as poor relations between India, Myanmar and China, meant that none of these
countries used the road.
That has now changed. Relations between the three countries have improved
significantly, resulting in a revival of interest in reopening the road.
However, stretches of the road, especially in Myanmar, were in poor condition
or simply no longer exist.
Agreement for the renovation of the Myitkyina-Tanai-Pangsau Pass was signed in
November, according to the Indian Express. The project will be undertaken as a
joint venture by Yunnan Construction and Myanmar's military-backed Yuzana
Of the three countries, China has been most enthusiastic about reopening the
road and Myanmar the least keen. Beijing has already renovated the stretch
running through China and linked it the country's superhighway network. It has
also been developing other infrastructure in Yunnan, where Kunming is an
increasingly important industrial center, in order to maximize gains from trade
once the Stilwell Road is reopened.
Since the road runs through the insurgency-wracked Kachin region over which
Myanmar's military rulers have limited control, they have been reluctant to
allow the road's opening, seeing it as likely to facilitate movement of
With the award of the contract for repairing the Myitkyina-Pangsau Pass
stretch, the last obstacle on the way to reopening the Stilwell road has been
India was hoping to land the renovation project, particularly as Myanmar's
rulers had raised the issue with New Delhi in 2008. The loss of the contract to
China has evoked disappointment in Delhi, but India too will reap the benefits
of the reopened road.
The two areas that the road will link - India's northeast and China's Yunnan -
are both isolated, economically backward and landlocked and the trade the
Stilwell road will encourage is likely to bring in its wake economic
development to these regions.
Partition of the sub-continent in 1947, severing what is now Bangladesh from
India, deprived the northeast of access to its nearest port, Chittagong. Sixty
years on, the region's access to the sea is about 1,600 km away - overland via
a poor road and rail network and through the narrow Siliguri Corridor to
Kolkata port. Goods from India's northeast headed for China or Southeast Asian
countries are at present shipped via Kolkata through the Strait of Malacca and
on to China.
"It takes seven days for cargo to move by road from the northeast to Kolkata,
then around three to four weeks to move by sea to China," said Saharia. Cargo
from the northeast transported along the Stilwell Road could reach Yunnan in
less than two days.
The Stilwell Road could emerge as a preferred route for transporting goods to
China from other parts of India too, given the short distance to Yunnan.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during a visit to India in December said "The world
is undergoing major development and changes, we should seize the opportunity
and lose no time in deepening our ties."
During his visit, the countries set a new bilateral trade target of $100
billion by 2015 from the 2009-10 level of around $60 billion. At present there
is a $19 billion balance in China's favor. Even if a fraction of this trade
were to take place through the Stilwell Road it has the potential to improve
the economies of regions en route.
Other routes run from the northeast India through Myanmar to Southeast Asia,
including the Moreh-Tamu road, which links Manipur with Myanmar. India's
National Highway 39, which runs from Numaligarh in Assam through Nagaland links
up with this road at Moreh. The expectations of the Moreh-Tamu road have,
however, not been realized as this road is closed for at least a third of the
year due to strikes and civil unrest.
Construction on the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project is reported to
have begun late last month. The project envisages connecting the northeastern
state of Mizoram with the Bay of Bengal and is expected to be completed by
2013, giving goods from India's landlocked northeast access to the sea.
The project involves constructing roads linking Mizoram with Kaletwa in
Myanmar, development of the Kaladan River as a waterway and improving the
infrastructure of the port at Sittwe, capital of Myanmar's Arakan province and
the point where the Kaladan River empties into the Bay of Bengal.
Thus goods from the northeast can be transported by road and river to Sittwe
port from where it can be moved by sea to other Southeast Asian countries.
Sittwe's importance as a port will also grow as it serves as a center for
development of offshore gas fields in the area and terminal for a gas pipeline
planned to run north to China.
India had been eyeing Sittwe port for several reasons, sea access for cargo
from the northeast being one. Indian interest in Sittwe was also particularly
high as relations with Bangladesh have at times been poor and Dhaka was
reluctant to give Indian goods access to its Chittagong port.
Relations with Bangladesh have improved substantially over the past two years
and Dhaka has expressed interest in allowing India to use Chittagong port as
another outlet for its goods.
Access to Chittagong will no doubt reduce the commercial importance of Sittwe
to India. But Sittwe has strategic importance for India as well. Besides,
access to road, rail and other outlets in more countries is good for trade,
Saharia said, pointing out that this “will reduce India's dependence on one
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in