Strategic Roads of Myanmar


Myanmar was home to two famous strategic roads during the Second World War — “The Burma Road” and “The Ledo Road”. Some people confused the name “The Burma Road” with “The Ledo Road”. Most thought it was one and the same. However, “The Burma Road” was one and “The Ledo Road” was another. The former was built in 1937 by the Chinese with permission from the British to connect Burma (Myanmar) and China. The latter was built during the Second World War by the US Army, to connect India and China. Both were intended for the transportation of heavy armaments, military equipments and other military supplies to the Chinese Nationalist Army, who were fighting the Japanese. “The Burma Road” was the name of the road section between Lashio in the Northern Shan State passing through Kyukok in Burma (Myanmar) and Wanding in China, right up to Kumming in the Yunnan province. It is commonly known as the “Muse/Shweli Road” today. It facilitated the flow of military supplies, which the United State of America was aiding the Chinese Nationalist Army, under Generalissimo Chiang KaiShek, to fight the Japanese invaders during the Second SinoJapanese War.
The Burma Road
During the Second SinoJapanese War (1937 1945), the Japanese Imperial Army had occupied almost all the coastal areas including most of the sea ports of China. The United State, which was assisting the Chinese, found it difficult and dangerous to transport military supplies to China by sea, because of the heavy presence of the Japanese Imperial Navy in the region. Commodities such as fuel, provisions, materials needed for the war efforts, too, were unable to reach China safely. During that period, the US was not yet at war with Japan, so they were restrained from using their naval forces for that task. Thus an alternative line of communication was urgently needed to supply China. Both the US and China approached the British in Burma (Myanmar), with requests to construct a road link from Kumming, Yunnan to Lashio in the Northern Shan State, where the railhead of the Burma Railway was situated. It would also link with the existing road system that could reach to Rangoon (Yangon) , where there was a modern port facility.
At first, the British were reluctant to agree, lest the Japanese be provoked. However, due to the lobbying by two Burmese (Myanmar) members of the Legislature of Burma, who were approached by the Chinese, succeeded in persuading the British rulers to agree. The constructions started in 1937. The whole project including the costs and constructions were undertaken by China. Some 200,000 Chinese and a few Burmese (Myanmar) labourers built the road literally barehanded, using hand tools only. It was completed in 1938, and the convoys of US military supplies from Rangoon (Yangon) started to roll along this strategic road. The road measured 1,154 kilometers from Lashio to Kumming, the two main terminals.
The Ledo Road
During the Second World War, after the Japanese had occupied Burma (Myanmar), the military supplies to China were unable to be transported through the Rangoon (Yangon) Port. Thus the Allied forces in India had to find an alternative to transport them to China. At first they were flying supplies from India, but the high Himalayan Mountain range called “The Hump”, between Northern Myanmar and China was hampering the planes’ flight, especially when they were carrying heavy loads. Finally in late 1942, they decided to construct a road along an old, very crude path started by the Government of British India in 1920. The task was assigned to the US Army, as the United State had entered the war by then, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. The road was built from the railhead town of Ledo in Assam, India passing through the Hukaung Valley in the Sagaing Division in Northern Myanmar, through Myitkyina and Bhamo to link up with the existing Burma Road. It was constructed under the direct supervision of General Joseph W. Stilwell of the US Army, popularly known as “Vinegar Joe” or fondly known to his soldiers as “Uncle Joe”. Some even dubbed it “The Stilwell Road”. The constructions started in December, 1942 and took nearly two years, to be completed only in the late 1944. The first convoy of over hundred motor vehicles reached China from India by that road only in January 1945, near the end of the war. Thus the usefulness of that road was not very significant. A few years after the war, that road was neglected altogether, as it was of not much use and the remoteness of its location rendered it not worth maintaining. Most parts of the road returned to the jungles.
There were many interesting stories related to the Ledo Road. Most were about the sightings of ghosts and of hauntings encountered by those who had passed through the Hukong Valley in those days. The stories were mostly told by the veterans of the allied armies, who were involved in the construction of the Ledo Road. An American Baptist missionary family of Reverend Morse, who had to flee the invading Japanese, also recorded such hauntings in the accounts of their flight to India. However, one story that stood out was not about ghosts, but the giant snakes. This story was not a narration by someone, but it was a news item from The Statesman, a daily newspaper published in India and was also distributed in our country in those days. In 1945 (1946?) a very interesting story was on the front of page of the said newspaper with a photo of large sections of snakes loaded on a row of military trucks, which I had the opportunity to have seen it. As I was still young and could not read English, I asked my father to translate for me. The story went thusa Bailey bridge spanning a valley along the Ledo Road was found to have sagged a few feet one morning. The construction crews repaired it immediately as there was still heavy traffic using that road. However, the same situation was found the next morning. At first the construction crew thought the heavy traffic must have caused it. When the same thing occured the next morning, they decided to post sentries near the bridge at night. Around midnight the sentries were amazed to find two giant snakes, one slithering from the hill on one side of the bridge and another from the opposite side. They met in the middle and started entwining one another. The snakes were mating on the bridge and their heavy weights and the force of their wriggling were too much for the Bailey bridge, thus causing it to sag. Their overwhelmingly large sizes must be very intimidating for the necessity to call in the air strike; not to endanger the lives of the soldiers, if they were to shoot from ground level.
Strategic and Economic Importance of Myanmar
Here, I would like to discuss the strategic geographical location of our country. We are ideally situated with an easy access to the sea and has common borders with India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand. The sea allows us easy access to anywhere in the world. This fact was realized and recognized, since over two centuries ago. In the early nineteenth century, even before our country was colonized, the British East India Company sent an expedition, with the permission of the Burmese (Myanmar) King, to explore and study the feasibility of opening an overland route to China passing through Burma (Myanmar). That expedition met with tragedy. During that period, there was a Panthay Revolution raging on in Southwest China and all the members of that expedition were massacred by the rebels. The objectives of the expedition was to save time for transporting goods and passengers to the Far East. In those days the only means of transport to the Far East was by sailing ships, that took plenty days to travel from India, the main British trading post in Asia. If an overland route could be established, it would save much time and also be safe from the dangers of the pirates, who terrorized the merchant ships that passed through the Straits of Malacca, a narrow sea passage between the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula and the Sumatra Islands. Even today our country is in such a strategic position that it cannot be ignored, as being a vital link, not only between India and China but between the Far East, the ASEAN and the South Asian countries.
Recently, India and China are planning to revive the Ledo Road to promote overland trades between their two countries. It would definitely benefit the landlocked Assam Province of India and of course China too, but the benefit for our country would be just minimal, given the remoteness of that location. Such developments are proofs and indicators of the strategic and economic importance of our country in the region, especially for India and China, evident from the facts that both countries are wooing our country for favours. Our strategic geographical location is a great blessing and an invaluable asset, which we should safeguard and be able to exploit it to our advantage. Now that the EastWest Economic Corridor and the Southern Economic Corridor projects of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) are in the pipeline, we should use this opportunity to develop and upgrade our road systems in cooperation with the neighbors. The old “Burma Road”, now the “Muse/Shweli Road” is still serving as the main commercial link between China and Myanmar and is thriving but would need upgrading. If we can link up with those corridors, it would definitely attract more tourists, increase the crossborder trades, as well as the interregional trades, create job opportunities and above all, boost our economic and social status.

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