Northeast states want Stilwell Road re-opened to boost trade

By Syed Zarir Hussain, IANS

Guwahati : Chief ministers of northeastern states have urged New Delhi to boost border trade with Southeast Asia and China by re-opening the historic World War II Stilwell Road, linking the region to China via Myanmar.

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“We have made a strong plea for re-opening of the Stilwell Road to the prime minister in a recent meeting in New Delhi,” Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi told IANS.

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.

“Re-opening of the Stilwell Road would greatly boost the economy and trade activities of the region with Southeast Asian countries,” Gogoi said.

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.

Similar demands were made by chief ministers of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh asking New Delhi to allow business along the international border saying it would bring economic prosperity to the underdeveloped region, which is wracked by insurgency.

“We want this historic road re-opened as our region would then have the potential to become the hub of business activities and the gateway to Southeast Asian economic centres,” Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Khandu Dorjee said.

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. China’s official news agency Xinhua reported that a ceremony was held in Myanmar earlier this year to celebrate the rebuilding of the Myanmar leg of the road in Kambaiti on the China-Myanmar border.

“The Myanmar portion of the highway needs to be developed,” Gogoi said. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had earlier said his government was keen on furthering the country’s Look East Policy aimed at allowing border trade with neighbouring Southeast Asian nations.

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.

The state chief ministers have pointed out that 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.