Dialogue October- December, 2007, Volume 9  No. 2


The Stillwell Road and India’s Look East Policy


E.N. Rammohan





“An immense laborious task, unlikely to be finished until the need for it had passed” was Sir Winston Churchill’s terse appraisal of the controversial Ledo-Burma road project.  Begun in 1942 by US Army engineers, the project seemed an impossibility from the start.  First, the stretch of the old Burma war-torn road leading east 600 miles from Mong Yu in North Burma to Kunming in China would have to be repaired and improved for all weather travel.  Then a new 500-mile road would have to be carved out of the wilderness from Ledo in Assam to Mong Yu.  Eighty percent of the region through which the engineers had to cut their way was in enemy hands.  As work on the road progressed, bulldozers frequently carried a man riding shotgun to guard against snipers, nevertheless some 139 engineers were killed by the Japanese.  Diseases, drownings, crashes of supply planes and construction accidents claimed the lives of hundreds more.  It was said without exaggeration that the road was being built at the cost of a man a mile. All told 28,000 engineers and 35000 native workers laboured for two years to complete the Ledo-Burma road, known officially as the Stillwell road.  The road’s construction along the edges of 8,500 foot defiles, down steep gorges and across raging rapids in some of the world’s most impenetrable jungles-stands as one of the great engineering feats of world war two.  On 12 January 1945, the first official convoy pulled out of Ledo for Kunming over the newly finished Ledo road.  Commanded by General Pick, after almost a month of hard travel over

*Shri E.N. Ramohan is former DGP, Border Security Force and Member of National Security Advisory Board.

the 1,100 mile route, the convoy rode triumphantly into Kunming. Before the war was over, more than 5,000 vehicles would make the trip, carrying 34, 000 tons of vital supplies to China.1

     After World War Two, the Stillwell road was virtually abandoned.  No one in India thought of any link with Burma or China through this road. The portion from Pangsu pass on the Patkai range leading to Myitkyina was neglected.  Some time in the mid nineteen fifties, a group of students from Cambridge University drove two Land Rovers from England to Shillong and then drove up the Patkai Range, crossed the Pangsu pass and drove along the Stillwell road.  They soon found the road ahead abandoned, the bridges overwhelmed with creepers and fallen.  They managed to carry their two Land Rovers across the smaller streams taking the help of local villagers who ferried the vehicles across by slinging them on bhaluka banh (thick bamboos).  When they reached the wider rivers and found the bridges fallen, they got the villagers to ferry the vehicles across on rafts.  They managed to reach Mong Yu and then finally reached Rangoon and then Singapore. This pioneering expedition stirred little interest in India and the Stillwell road was again forgotten.


Historical Background


      It is of interest that the axis of the Stillwell road was probably the same as the ancient southern silk route that linked China with Assam.  The Ahoms who came to upper Assam in the early 13th century also probably followed the same axis.  The Burmese army that invaded Assam in the early 19th century also probably followed the same axis.  The portion of the Stillwell road from the Pangsu pass to Myitkyina has since been improved to some degree by the Burmese government over the years.  The road is in use from the Pangsu pass on the Patkai range to Myitkyina a distance of 237 miles, passing through the following towns-Tawaga, Shijnpwinyan, Taronka, Daughnagar, Makaw, Tanai, Tinkok, Shartazyut, Wayazyut, and Mogaung.  From Myitkyina to Bhamo it is116 miles and from here to Muse it is 90 miles.  At Muse the Stillwell road joins the Burma Road coming from Lashio and going to Kunming.  The Chinese have developed the road from Kunming to Lashio and then on to Mandalay.  Huge ten wheeled trucks are regularly moving on this section.

India’s failure of Foreign Policy on Burma


    From the time Burma got its independence, India had very good relations with the Government of U. Nu.  The Burmese Army took power in a silent coup in 1962 and finally in 1968 the Army Chief carried out another coup and the military took full control of the country.  In 1990, there was an uprising by the civil population against the military rule after the League for Democracy was not allowed to form the government after it won a clear majority of seats in the general elections held.  In 1989, it is reported that the Burmese military sent a delegation to Delhi asking for help to build up their armed forces.  At that time, the Indian Government probably read them a lecture in democracy.  Rebuffed the Burmese delegation returned to Rangoon and opened negotiations with China.  In China the Communist party had recovered from the Cultural Revolution and Deng Hsiao Ping had reversed gears and embarked on a path of free enterprise. They had implemented a plan to develop the Kunming area and industrialise it to cater to the South and South-east Asian market. The Chinese welcomed the Burmese delegation and supplied them with all their defence requirements of small arms, armoured vehicles, Artillery, medium patrol boats.  They also advanced soft loans of several billion dollars, with easy repayment facilities. The Chinese also developed the portion of the Stillwell road that connected the Kunming area with Lashio and then to Mandalay.  Very soon Chinese goods from the Kunming area were rolling down the Stillwell road and flooding the Burmese market. From Mandalay the Burmese already had a road to Kalemyo south of Tamu the border town of Burma opposite Moreh. Soon Chinese goods were flooding the Indian market coming in through several channels, across Moreh in Manipur, from Nepal and entering India at Siliguri, and all along the Nepal border. The Government of India also considerately developed the Tamu Kalemyo road.  Along with the goods a sizeable Chinese population has also silently migrated to Burma.  Mandalay has become a predominantly Chinese city.  Our lack of foresight has cost us dearly.  If we had helped the Burmese junta then, Burma would have been to a great degree dependent on us.  The Stillwell road should have been taken up for development then.  But then at that time we were still in the Public sector mode, while China with a communist government had already privatised.

   China is importing raw materials from Myanmar and exporting readymade consumer goods to them. The Chinese town on the China Myanmar border- Rueli is humming with activity.  In 2006 4.36 million people and 3,86,000 vehicles passed through Rueli’s border crossing carrying 4,75,000 metric tones of cargo.  This includes, timber, gems, mineral and oil that go to China.  Chinese consumer goods flood Myanmar’s markets.  Almost everything that Burma buys is from China and almost everything that she sells is to China.  Thailand also buys raw material from Burma.Chinese firms are by now involved in about 40 hydropower projects and at least 17 onshore and off shore oil and gas projects in Burma.  China has also announced plans to build a 2400 oil and gas pipeline from Arakan to Yunnan.4 It is fairly obvious that China’s grip on Burma is firm.  The first reaction therefore, if the Burmese government permits development of the Stillwell road to be taken up by India, will be a backlash of Chinese consumer goods from Rueli to Lashio, Myitkyina and then to the Pangsu pass on the Patkai range and then into India.  This will be for a simple reason that the route via Kalemyo to Moreh and Imphal will be too roundabout.  When the Stillwell road is opened, we cannot obviously prevent movement of goods from entering legally.  We should not hesitate to open the Stillwell road for this reason. We should see that Chinese consumer goods are beaten in competition by Indian goods. Incidentally Chinese consumer goods are already in the Indian market beating Indian goods in competition.  Many Indian factories, of toys for example, have closed down because the Chinese toys are of better quality and cheaper despite the long transportation.




      What is likely to happen if the Stillwell road is opened? The first development will be a sudden flush of Chinese consumer goods into India.  This will probably cut down on smuggling from across the Manipur and Nepal borders.  It will be good to encourage direct imports fro China. This will stop the generation of black money that is a product of smuggling.  It will also make the private sector in India to strive to beat the Chinese in manufacture of consumer goods.  Heroin is already being smuggled into India through Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram.  It will now come along the Stillwell road.  Detecting and discouraging the smuggling of narcotics is the job of the Border guarding force, the Narcotics Bureau and the Customs.  The likelihood of more smuggling of narcotics along the new axis of the Stillwell road should not deter us from opening the road.  Opening of the Stillwell road will benefit the economy of the people living on either axis of the road from the Pangsu pass to Myitkyina.  Civil supplies, medicines can be easier imported from India to cater for this region than supplied from Rangoon or Mandalay.  The whole area will be opened up for tourism from India.

       It is mentioned in this regard as to what is in it for Assam and the other northeastern states in opening this road.  This is something that the northeastern states’ industrial lobby small as it is at present should plan from now.  A study should be made to list out what is being imported from China into Burma now. The lobby set up in Assam should then set up industries to manufacture such of those items that can undercut the Chinese supply.  India can also import different kinds of gemstones and jade.  Also, timber and minerals. 

     Though the Government of India has been talking of a Look east policy, this has not progressed beyond the idea expressed.  Burma is presently in the throes of an internal agitation. After this settles down I think we should talk to the Burmese government and take up the opening of the Stillwell road.  The Border Roads developed the Tamu-Kalemyo road in 2000.  They should be given the task of opening up the Stillwell road and their flag should be flying on this route from the Pangsa pass to Myitkyina and Lashio by 2010.



        1.China-Burma-India. Don Moser. World War Two. Time-Life Books.
        2. Stillwell Road in Historical Perspective. J.N.Phukan. Reopening of the  Stillwell Road-Prospects and Problems. Anamika Publishers.
        3. Herald Tribune, New York.3 October 2007.                                       

4. Myanmar and the world. Economist 2007.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

              Astha Bharati