The Stilwell Road was constructed during the Second World War to connect India to China through Myanmar. Since the war ended, the 68-year old road has been neglected - until now. In 2007, China completed rebuilding its portion of the road from Kunming Province to Myitkyina in Myanmar. In 2010, the government of Myanmar awarded a Chinese state-owned enterprise the contract to re-build the portion of the road from Myitkyina up to the Pangsau Pass in Arunachal Pradesh, India. So far, India has left its portion static - and mostly in a shambles.
R. Ravi, the former Special Director of India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB), and an expert on the North East region, explains to Gateway House’s Samir N. Kapadia, the domestic and international concerns that arise from reconstructing the Stilwell Road and how it can help build a a healthy India-Myanmar relationship that fits into our ‘Look East’ policy.
Q. During the second World War, the Stilwell Road served as an Indian corridor to China, through Myanmar. What are the domestic and international concerns that surround the reconstruction of this cross-border highway?
The Stilwell Road was built after the Japanese invaded and cut-off the Burma Road that was used to transport supplies to the China-based Allied Forces. Post World War II, the road stopped being used as the geopolitical situation in this entire area became unfavourable – the political situation in Burma became unstable and India’s engagement with China became hostile, to name a few.
In many ways, we forgot our relations with Burma and China and this discouraged Delhi from re-activating the Stilwell Road. With the changing geopolitical scenario, there is a ray of hope. China is keen on the project commercially, but there may be other strategic interests involved. In Kunming province, where Stilwell Road ends, the Chinese are anxious to start construction. Like the Chinese, people in the North-East look at the Stilwell Road as a monument of hope to connect them, not just economically, but also sociologically, as our entire eastern neighbourhood shares the same cultural heritage - a cultural cosmos where India is the centre of gravity.
Q. Despite that strong central pull, India’s north-east has remained troubled. How should the government act to contain insurgencies, and the infighting between ethnic groups?
The politics of ethnicity have been given currency over the decades. In Assam, over the years, we have encouraged the politics of ethnic exclusivism – where each community insists that it is unique and its topographical areas must be protected. Any encroachment on that exclusivity is considered a threat to a community’s own culture and identity, something that is never-ending.
Assam is an extremely heterogeneous society. If one allows and encourages every community to emphasize its identity, there will be no end to division. There is a need for inclusive politics. Other states in India have numerous communities living side by side, but they don’t have their own administrative institutions.
Violence must be curbed. Assam is not a civil war situation; India will not let that happen. The government needs to stop looking at it as an ethnic issue.
Q. Myanmar’s opening up has provided India with fresh opportunities to engage. How can we add more substance to the India-Myanmar relationship?
All these years, India has been engaging Myanmar gingerly. Security was the area of interest that brought us closer to Myanmar. While there are safe-havens for insurgents in Myanmar, we need the cooperation of the Myanmar government to stabilize our own North-Eastern region. Myanmar is opening up to international players and it appears keen on building democratic institutions. It will be easy for India to make the most of it. Myanmar also has huge natural gas potential. In January 2011, its proven reserves were 283 billion cubic metres, while annual export is a measly 8.3 billion cubic metres. This can serve to our advantage, as delivery will be more efficient and less expensive. The Stilwell Road can pave the way for India to secure its growing energy needs, regionally.
Q. How does this fit into India’s ‘Look East’ policy?
India’s ‘Look East’ policy was conceived in the early 1990s. Before, we had constantly looked towards the West. Until now, India has looked east through the sea corridor; not the land corridor. We have now realised that Myanmar is the key to a large portion of Southeast Asia. The emerging geopolitical scenario in this region, which comprises India's North-East, Myanmar, South-West China and Bangladesh, is pregnant with promises for a win-win situation for all. The Stilwell Road, although an infrastructure that has long been in disuse, holds the key, in substantial ways, to help fulfill these promises. We should not let it slip.
R. Ravi served in the IB for 20 years, prior to which he served in the Central Bureau of Investigation. He is the recipient of the President’s Medal for Distinguished Service and Prime Minister’s Indian Police Medal.