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A proposed trade route worth its salt

Pansaung (Myanmar), Nov. 26: East of the Indian hills, a small gesture can pack a world of meaning.

So, when junior commerce minister Jairam Ramesh handed over a sack of salt to a Myanmar army officer here on Saturday, he knew he could be opening a door.

A whole highway, actually.

On the Centre’s table is a proposal to reopen the 1,700km Stilwell Road — which connects Ledo in Assam to Kunming in China through Myanmar — to cross-border trade.

The symbolism in Ramesh’s gift was apt — salt and tea are India’s most important exports to Myanmar. But the minister would have been as grateful handing it to Maj. Aungse as the soldier was to receive it.

Ramesh’s ministry backs the road proposal but the foreign and home ministries have doubts. “There is concern that the road passes through insurgency-hit areas in Myanmar,” Ramesh said.

Northern Myanmar’s jungles teem with Indian guerrillas from groups like Ulfa and the NSCN (Khaplang). It is under Maj. Aungse’s command that Myanmar’s 126 Light Regiment, posted at the border, raided Ulfa camps last week.

Delhi and Myanmar are drawing closer despite the junta’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, mainly because the home ministry sees a strategic partnership as crucial to security in the Northeast.

The commerce ministry wants to reopen the route by 2008, Ramesh said while inaugurating the international trade centre at Nampong, the last Indian town on Stilwell Road. “I have spoken to (foreign minister) Pranab Mukherjee on reopening (trade through) the Pangsu Pass soon,” he said.

The junta wants India to also upgrade a 61km stretch of the road — from Nampong to Tennai in Myanmar — on which Pangsu Pass (Pansaung to the Myanmarese) lies.

Now, the moment one passes the wooden signboard saying “The Union of Myanmar”, the ride till Pansaung remains bumpy. At the busy market here, women sell wares ranging from cigar-like bidis and Chinese knives and toys to Myanmarese slippers and shoes. Close by is the Lake of No Return — the local Bermuda Triangle. According to folklore, aircraft that fly over the lake never return.

The local people are eager to see Stilwell Road reopened for trade before 2010. All the northeastern chief ministers, too, have requested Manmohan Singh to reopen the route. Arunachal Pradesh hopes it will boost timber exports.

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