The Stilwell Road, linking India with Myanmar and China during World War II, is alive with history. Inspired by the explorations of journalist Arun Veembur who met with a tragic end en route, SHYAM G. MENON goes the whole way…
Past the dusty, coal-smeared roads of Ledo a large board with a long forgotten railway track nearby leading to a long gone bridge announced the start of the Stilwell Road. Officially it was National Highway 153. Across the river, the old track led to the Lekhapani station. Once the eastern most tip of the Indian Railways, the last train here was in February 1997. Now the tracks end at Ledo from where during World War II, General Joseph Stilwell of the US Army built a road into Myanmar to connect with the famous Burma Road leading to China. Technically speaking, if the world would set aside boundaries and conflicts, the road I was on would take me to Kunming, 1737 kilometers away. What a thought!
The Stilwell Road's construction and the preceding airlift, flying in supplies from Assam to Yunnan in China across mountains exceeding 10,000ft in elevation, is considered one of the most remarkable chapters of World War II. It was necessitated following the Japanese invasion of China and the consequent inability of Allied Forces to supply China by sea. To make matters worse, the Japanese land thrust towards India from South East Asia, cut off access to the Burma Road once Myanmar fell. The airlift from Assam – called “Flying the Hump” – became a legend in aviation history. Flown by American and Chinese pilots, several aircraft were lost on this route at a mountainous knot on the planet where the combination of altitude, rain bearing clouds and powerful winds made flying terribly difficult. Some of the air strips associated with the Second World War airlift have since come under Indian Air Force charge and are still functional at Dibrugarh. As are the tea estates which lent their names to the air strips, provided accommodation for the airmen and whose personnel – through the Indian Tea Association – were associated with building transport infrastructure in these parts, not to mention, taking care of the refugees that poured into India when Myanmar fell to the Japanese. The 3727ft-high Pangsau Pass in the Patkai Hills was among places they had crossed into India. That's where the Stilwell Road was headed.
The area was like a history book come alive. At the Jairampur camp of the Assam Rifles in Arunachal Pradesh, soldiers recently recovered two vintage machine guns while tilling land for cultivation. Down the road was the official World War II cemetery, with almost 1000 graves, many of them Chinese. Among them was the grave of Major Hsiao Chu Ching of the “Independent Engineers of Chinese Army stationed in India,” born July 1913 in Hapeh Province and died, December 1943. Less than 100 feet away was the newly erected memorial. I was on my way to the 2010 Pangsau Pass Winter Festival at Nampong, last settlement on the Stilwell Road before it crosses the pass into Myanmar. The festival has built a buzz around the road highlighting its potential for trade. At the festival's inaugural ceremony attended by Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu, speakers welcomed the tribal artistes from both sides of the border and hoped the road would be opened for trade.
Lobbying to reopen the Stilwell Road has been on for some time. Former Minister of State for Commerce, Jairam Ramesh once said he would like to see the road reopened by 2010. Then a June 18, 2009, report from Guwahati quoting B.K. Handique, Minister for Development of North Eastern Region said that plans to reopen had been shelved following Myanmar's objection on security grounds. At Nampong, I asked Pallam Raju, Minister of State for Defense, what the government's official position was on reopening the road. He declined comment. Arunachal Pradesh with China to the north and west has only Myanmar to probe for international trade route. Setong Sena, Finance Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, had been among those who visited the Prime Minister's Office to seek the reopening of the Stilwell Road. According to him, the government had put the Stilwell Road as a third priority after routes opened in Mizoram and Manipur. Now in retrospect, it would appear that the Myanmar authorities having seen India build a Friendship Road into Myanmar from Manipur may be wanting similar work this side. Indeed, much of the Stilwell Road in its World War II form reportedly lay on the Myanmar side. That's great history but bad infrastructure for trade.
Nampong resembled a market town spilling with activity for the festival. There was a designated spot for traders from Myanmar. Articles on offer included packaged food items, garments, toiletry, cosmetics, porcelain and small gadgets. A lot of it was Chinese but some, like the instant tea and coffee, was from Myanmar. A particular attraction was knives and ceremonial swords. Although there are instances of the same tribe spanning both sides of the border, not everyone there for the festival succeeded in communication. Plenty of gesticulation and intonation sealed a transaction. The currency was always rupees; that's what the Myanmar traders prefer. Border policing in these parts works on the principle that people residing in the neighbourhood of the international divide be allowed to cross. There are specific days for visits by either side. Previously a visitor from Myanmar crossing over to the Nampong market was identified by a rattan basket. Then, the basket while still around, was overshadowed by weather beaten 4-stroke step-thru motorcycles. They are allowed to be driven till a small clearing overlooking Nampong, where all vehicles are parked and the visitors walk down. The Stilwell Road was being widened here. It alternated between narrow stretches that emphasized the lush green jungle around and bulldozed patches of orange earth betraying the soft terrain that had made work difficult in the 1940s. Past the last Assam Rifles check post, the road deteriorated into a bouncy mud track. The old hotline between army commanders ran alongside, strung on poles. Tucked behind a couple of bends was the real boundary line between India and Myanmar with a stone marker and alongside, an overgrown path – the old alignment of the Stilwell Road. Few more turns and the first check post on the Myanmar side drew up followed by a cracked building with a derelict Lifan truck parked in front. Ahead, the village of Pangsau in Myanmar was busy with people who had crossed over as part of the festival. Behind the market place, a steep road ran down to the edge of a beautiful lake – The Lake of No Return. It was associated with the region's World War II history as a lake into which planes had crashed. Its shores were utterly peaceful.
I wouldn't have come this far had it not been for Arun Veembur, a young journalist from Bengaluru who was obsessed with the Stilwell Road and set out to write a book on it. Born into a family related to E.M.S Namboodiripad, Kerala's best known Communist leader, this former student of Christ College subsequently worked at Deccan Herald, Silicon India and Mid-Day. Having made it nearly to the border in India, he travelled to Myanmar in 2007 and tried connecting to Pangsau Pass via the Stilwell Road that side. However the trip had to be aborted midway as Myanmar army officials, who grant permissions en route, declined access for the final stretch. Although forced to turn back, Arun along with another friend from that Myanmar trip, continued to Kunming from Mandalay. Little is known of this journey. They must have travelled down the Burma Road; the Stilwell Road links with the Burma Road at Wandingzhen. Arun is believed to have reached Kunming in typical backpacker fashion with no money and just happiness for the journey done. He found a base at The Hump, a backpackers' hostel with a colourful bar and lot of World War II memorabilia for theme. Arun loved this place where all sorts of travellers and people with crazy projects washed up.
The variety of work Arun did to stay in Kunming and complete his book ranged from content development for The Hump and tourism in the area to work with the Yunnan Chamber of Commerce and helping Indian businessmen in Yunnan. He learnt Chinese. He moved to Dali as part of an assignment, developing content for a website on the historic city. In early November 2009, Arun was out on a solo hike in the Changshan Mountains. During descent, he slipped at a dry waterfall and injured himself badly. Having informed his friends in Dali of the accident, Arun who was on a less frequented trail, crawled under a ledge for shelter. By the time rescuers found him, it was too late. He was 28 years old. “He had told me that travelling and writing was what he wanted to do. After Stilwell Road, he had planned something in Peru and another trip in Europe,'' P. Rajesh, Arun's uncle said. The family is currently trying to compile Arun's notes from China. I heard of Arun in 2007 from Pearly Jacob, a young lady from Mizoram who worked as radio jockey in Bengaluru and who later cycled from Thailand to China and Mongolia. Arun's junior in college, she mentioned his trip to Myanmar to help me get started on exploring the North East.
The first time I saw Arun was his photo in the obituary published by The Hindu. His friends, in their attempt to help me gain insight, forwarded me samples of his writing including an eight point declaration of intent that he wrote in September 2009 at Dali. The eighth point said, “I stand firmer than ever in my dedication to the avoidance of boredom. This boredom is not the situational one, like when a reputed bore buttonholes you at a boring dinner (well, even there I would try my best to flee to the loo and dodge out the back door). It is a boredom of existence.'' That got me off my chair and as far as the lake side in Myanmar. It was my first visit to the North East.
What struck me that day in Pangsau was the absence of the Myanmar military. At the first check post I had seen a policeman; at the second I saw one person in olive green surrounded by men who looked like villagers. A senior officer of the Assam Rifles later said that overt military presence had been relaxed on either side for the festival. Nevertheless it felt strange to be in a country ruled by a military dictatorship with no passport or visa on oneself. Either side of the border in these parts had experienced insurgency. In Myanmar it was the Kachin rebels. On the Indian side, Dibrugarh from where one proceeded to Ledo, was the home-town of Paresh Barua, leader of the ULFA while Jairampur and Nampong fell in Arunachal Pradesh's Changlang district, which along with neighboring Tirap district, were part of the Greater Nagaland claimed by Naga militant groups. Further, Indian militant groups have operated from foreign soil and militancy everywhere has links to narcotics. In Dibrugarh, I met Dr Nagen Saikia, former Member of Parliament and former President of the Asam Sahitya Parishad. He wrote in a newspaper article that reopening the road would be a blunder. Dr Saikia felt that the government's “Look East Policy” was both an over-simplification of the North East's cultural roots and a boost to international trade from the region earlier than required given China's confusing stance towards India. “ Assam also does not have so many products to trade with Myanmar and China,'' he said.
Teams continue to attempt traversing this link between India, Myanmar and China. Some like the Cambridge / Oxford team of 1955, Eric Edis in 1957 and Donavan Webster later, have written memorable books. Others plot travel in Internet chat rooms. None of this matters for local people crossing the border. Quirks of history and accumulated neglect have made their everyday life an adventure for others. The irony of the Stilwell Road is that not long after its completion and the first convoy of Allied supplies reached China in February 1945, the Second World War ended. Hundreds of lives had been sacrificed building the road but its use in entirety for the purpose it was meant for – a transport link between India and China, was hardly tapped. In the years following the war, the forces supported by the Allies shifted to Taiwan and mainland China became a Communist nation. Then in 1962, China invaded India in a war that contributed greatly to the mistrust which characterises present day relations between the two countries. Economic growth only made them competitors. Post World War II, Myanmar enjoyed a brief fling with democracy before slipping to military rule in 1962. Over the last decade, while India has initiated steps to work with Myanmar including the opening of trade routes and proposing a sea port at Sittwe, the latter's proximity to China has been more. Sixty five years old, the Stilwell Road awaits realisation of intent.
The author is a freelance writer based in Mumbai