Author name: 
Jaideep Saikia, Terrorism and Conflict Analyst and author/editor of several books. He has served the Govt. of India as an Expert on North East India in the National Security Council Secretariat and the Govt. of Assam in security advisory capacities.

One of the measures that were expected to provide thrust to the “Act East” policy was the reopening of the historic Stilwell Road that had linked North East India to China through northern Myanmar during World War II. Constructed under the guidance of an American commander, General Joseph Stilwell, after whom it was christened, the 1079 km long road was meant to ferry military supplies to aid the war efforts of the Chinese leader, Chiang Kai-shek against the Japanese. However, with the end of the war the road fell into disrepair.


Attempts were made during the last decade—primarily by statesmen from the North East—to rebuild the road. Even an able presentation on the road was made by a minister of Assam in Dhaka during the Kunming Initiative in 2001, and it seemed that a momentum had gained when the then Minister for External Affairs, Jaswant Singh visited Myanmar in the same year and inked several proposals including the opening up of the Pangsau Pass in the Indo-Myanmar border for border trade. Indeed, there was active interest in the construction of an initial 230 km stretch in the Stilwell Road from Ledo in Assam to Tanai in Myanmar’s Kachin state. The proposal had received a further boost during the visit of Myanmar’s number two in the Tatmadaw, General Maung Aye in April 2008.


But, despite the best efforts little headway was made. Indeed, hope of reopening the road ended with New Delhi’s decision not to reopen the Stilwell Road. Although security concerns seem to have guided New Delhi’s decision, it has probably circuited not only the imperative of development, but certain geostrategic considerations as well.


Without a passageway to dynamic South East Asia, the new “Act East” policy (which has replaced the “Look East” Policy) will continue to be a strategy on paper. The development boom in India would have provided a flourishing market to the famished lands of Myanmar. The outlet into such areas by way of corridors like the Stilwell Road would also have been a favourable conduit for Indian business. Furthermore, it has been calculated that commerce plying on the Stilwell Road would have reduced transportation costs between India, Myanmar and China by 30 percent.


Although alternative routes to and from Myanmar such as the ambitious Kaladan multi-nodal project, which would comprise a port, inland water facilities and a road connecting certain important places of Myanmar with India is on, a cost-benefit analysis of the decision not to reopen the Stilwell Road opines that reconstruction of an existent road, albeit that has ailed due to disuse would have been less demanding. The author has traversed the road all the way from Ledo to the Pangsau Pass with the Assam Rifles, and found that tales about its rundown condition have been exaggerated. It is entirely motorable even in the fiercest of monsoon season (when the author accepted the invitation to visit the area), and the road has more than adequate openings for the construction of not only commercial hubs, but tourism projects as well, especially in the annexes beyond misty Nampong. It is wondrous, therefore, that a project that would have connected the North East—and thereby the rest of India—to a new “kismet” should have been turned down.


The imperatives of security are vital, especially if it pertains to the borderlands and about areas that abut hostility. One of the reasons for the author’s trip to Tirap and Changlang in Arunachal Pradesh was to glean the manner in which insurgency ingress into India takes place, particularly from the Myanmar Naga Hills (MNH) and presently further afield from places such as Taga in Myanmar where ULFA (Independent), NDFB (Songbijit) and Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) are billeted. It is also a known fact that the United National Liberation Front of West South East Asia, the umbrella organisation headed by NSCN (Khaplang) abuts the Indo-Myanmar border; and in the not so distant past the members of the grouping have been utilising the area for launching detachments for operations against security forces in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, as also to enter the oil, coal and tea belts of Assam for extortion and subterfuge.


However, briefings received by the author at all levels of competent authority—civil and military—it was concluded that the entry point of the insurgents into Arunachal Pradesh was not through roads such as the Stilwell Road, but non-traditional (and ever-changing) routes that sought to circuit Indian border management provisions. The view that either insurgency or intimidating Chinese Army Personnel Carriers would roll via the Stilwell Road into Arunachal Pradesh is inane at best. Such analysis circuits the imperatives of development and that it must take primacy over considerations that are not realistic. New Delhi must comprehend that development is an important factor of security.


The geostrategic setback of the decision to roll back on the Stilwell Road project relates to the “considerable interest” that China has shown in upgrading the Stilwell Road. Even as New Delhi closed the chapter on the Old Ledo Road, Chinese contracts have been awarded for the refurbishing of the Road right up to Pangsau Pass, which is a mere 61 km from Ledo. It would be of interest to note that the information arrived by way of a significant admission by the Defence Ministry during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime. While it is a fact that the People’s Republic has constructed highways, defence installations and logistical centres in close proximity to the Line of Actual Control (LAC), such erections have primarily been in Chinese controlled areas opposite the Kameng and Kibithu sectors. Reports in open source of the time had also stated that a Parliamentary panel “rapped the Defence Ministry for its complacency and not maintaining detailed data on activities going on across the international border particularly in China.” It is sincerely hoped that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has not only been closely monitoring Chinese activity in places such as Thagla Ridge, Le Camp and Tatu in the Tibet Autonomous Region, but have been making robust efforts to match Chinese efforts on the Indian side.


It would be of interest to note that the upgradation of the Stilwell Road—particularly the 647 km Kunming-Myitkina stretch, which traverses the Kambaiti Pass—was already completed by Chinese concerns in 2007.  Furthermore, a Myanmarese construction company Ya Za Na Company with definite Chinese affiliations had been entrusted with the task of constructing the 192 km stretch of the Stilwell Road between Myitkina and Tanai. The Defence Ministry Report has also reportedly stated that contracts were awarded for the construction of the 174 km Tanai-Pangsau stretch that was taken up by Jaswant Singh’s 2001 visit to Myanmar as aforementioned, but which is now part of a Sino-Myanmarese design.


It would be of interest to Indian policy planners that Beijing had invested closer to $9 billion in Myanmar during the opening months of 2010, a majority of which is in infrastructure. The investment includes a $5 billion hydroelectric project, a $100 million modern airport in Naypyidaw and a 2000 km rail link between Yangon and Kunming. The intense Chinese activity to connect Kunming with not only areas in Myanmar, but to India’s borders could well be the security concern that New Delhi’s mandarins are obsessed with. Only this time around, it is someone else that is constructing the concern.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.