Myanmar says no to reopening Stilwell Road, plan shelved

June 18th, 2009 - 12:12 pm ICT by IANS  

Guwahati, June 18 (IANS) India’s plans of reopening the historic World War II Stilwell Road, linking the country to China via Myanmar, has come a cropper with Yangon rejecting moves to allow its territory for resuming age old road links, an official here said Thursday.
“The plan as of now stands cancelled with Myanmar objecting to the reopening of the Stilwell Road for security reasons,” Minister for the Development of the Northeastern Region (DoNER) Bijoy Krishna Handique told journalists.

The 1,726 km Stilwell Road connects India’s northeastern state of Assam to Kunming, the capital of southwest China’s Yunnan province, after cutting through the Pangsau pass in Myanmar. It touches almost all the important Southeast Asian capitals.

Named after American General Joseph Stilwell, who led its construction, Stilwell Road was a vital lifeline for the movement of Allied Forces during World War II as they battled to free China from Japanese occupation.

Chinese labourers, Indian soldiers and American engineers took three years to build the road. The Stilwell Road on the Indian side is about 61 km long. The major stretch of 1,033 km lies within Myanmar, while the stretch in China is 632 km.

China had already completed constructing their stretch of the Stilwell Road with the only major hitch being the rugged section of the legendary road in Myanmar, which Yangon refused to build.

Myanmar maintains that the Stilwell Road, which passes through its Kachin region, is infested with militant camps belonging to outfits from India’s northeast and hence reopening the road would provide better access to the rebels.

“Myanmar is of the view that reopening the Stilwell Road would only help Indian militants and hence the objection,” the minister said.

The Kachin region in the North Sagaing Division of Myanmar is home to about eight rebel groups of India’s northeast, including the S.S. Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).

India was hopeful that reopening of the Stilwell Road would greatly boost the economy and trade activities of the region with Southeast Asian countries.

“Now there are plans for an alternative route to connect the Northeast to other South Asian countries through the Sittwe Port in Myanmar. We need to build up infrastructure to enable using the Sittwe port,” the minister said.

There is strong demand for Indian automobile components, fruits, grains, vegetables, textiles and cotton yarn in most neighbouring countries. On the other hand, Indian traders are keen on importing electronic gadgets, synthetic blankets, teak, gold and semi-precious stones.

Assam, the gateway to the northeast, is about 2,000 km from the Indian capital New Delhi and some 3,000 km from the country’s biggest commercial centre, Mumbai.

Yangon, Bangkok and even some Chinese cities are much closer to most northeastern states than New Delhi or Mumbai.

For instance, Kunming in China is only 1,726 km from Ledo in Assam, where the Stilwell Road begins.

Only 250 km out of the northeast’s 5,000 km outer perimeter touches India. The remaining 4,750 km represents international boundaries with China, Myanmar, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

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