By Jayasree Nath
The Stilwell Road was a historical supply route to transport requisites to Chinese soldiers during the Second World War. Passing through Myanmar, the road once connected China and North-eastern part of India. The reopening of the road is in the news due to “India’s Look East Policy” to cut the transportation costs between India, China and Myanmar. However, India recently condemned the project, leading to fresh controversies, especially in the country’s North-East. This article elucidates on the controversy and concerns of the Indian central and regional governments.
The Government of India (GoI) believes that Myanmar is reluctant to reopen the Stilwell Road given security concerns. Despite the fact the Indian central government has shown keen interest to reopen the road. DoNER officials observed that “Myanmar is not interested in opening the road as it passes through the country’s Kachin region which is infested by insurgent elements, including those belonging to India like ULFA and NSCN factions” (Myanmar opposed to Stilwell Road re-opening, The Assam Tribune, 3 July 2011). Pointing out another reason as problems related to funding, in an report published in The Sentinel, titled Reopen Stilwell Road: Northeast CM’s, an Indian foreign ministry official indicated that since most of the road lies in Myanmar, major reconstruction would be pending with Myanmar, as the road was significantly damaged since the War.
GoI’s recent decision to open it up has led to a fresh controversy in the North East region. NE states which are connected through this road are very much in support of reopening the road considering the opportunities it gives for commercial growth and development of the Region. Mentioning unanimous decision of the regional heads on the road, Assam’s Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi stated that “there is no second opinion among the regional heads of the North East”. He also urged that for economic prosperity of the region and effective implementation of the ‘Centre’s Look East Policy’, reopening of the road is necessary.
Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh added “Free trade with Southeast Asian countries would be possible only with the reopening of the Stilwell Road which is the gateway to Southeast Asia.” Advocating road links to Southeast Asia, leaders from the North East region pointed out that Yangon, Bangkok and even some Chinese cities are much closer to most North Eastern states than Delhi or Mumbai. For instance, Kunming in China is only 1,726 km from Ledo in Assam where the Stilwell Road begins (Reopen Stilwell Road: Northeast CMs, The Sentinel, 19 July 2011).
Highlighting the commercial Growth and development of the insurgency-affected region, Arunachal Pradesh Governor Gen (Ret.d) J J Singh opined that reopening the road would reduce transportation cost between China and India by more than 30 per cent, and make it a production hub for Myanmarese and Western Chinese markets (Arunachal Guv seeks opening of Stilwell Road, The Assam Tribune, 20 June 2011). Makbul Pertin, Commissioner of Trade & Commerce, Arunachal Pradesh provided a glimpse of trade prospects, including “agricultural products, valuable timber, precious stones and ayurvedic medicines” which can be traded with Myanmar, while coal, fertilizer, tea, finished wood products, electronic goods, clothes, cement, steel and iron products, medicines and processed foods can be exported by India” (Border trade set for boom on historic Stilwell Road, The Sentinel, 24 Feb 2011).
On the security issue, the neighbouring Indian states, particularly Assam is against the view of a security threat posed by reopening of the road. (‘Tarun Gogoi stresses need for connectivity with South East Asia,’ The Assam Tribune, 5 July 2011). Talking to The Assam Tribune, Pradyut Bordoloi, Assam’s Minister for Industries and Commerce stressed the need for reopening trade routes via neighboring countries, urging the central government to adopt a pragmatic policy in developing the economic standing of the North East (Call to reopen NE trade routes, 31 January 2010).
On the other hand, highlighting transport connectivity with countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, the opposition party of Assam (AGP) criticized the decision of the GoI as self-contradictory and added that opening of this trade route could strengthen the bilateral relation between neighbouring nations (The Assam Tribune, 27 June 2010). However, amid this contradiction, what has been overlooked is that the Chinese government has already initiated endeavours for repairing the road to its own advantage. According to information published in The Assam Tribune dated 28th March 2011, a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence pointed out China’s activities on Myanmar border and the reconstruction of the road till India’s doorstep. This stands in sharp contrast to India’s concern to defer opening the road on Myanmar’s concerns.
Overall impression of this survey is that, although Stilwell road has a potential for trade development between India, Myanmar and China, security threats are hindering cooperation. Regional cooperation among the South Asian nations will benefit all and hence there is an immediate need to redress the issue than deferring it. Therefore, the opening of the road holds greater promise than perceived misfortune.
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