With Burma as Asean Leader, Hopes for India’s Stalled ‘Look East’ Highway

By William Boot 17 October 2013

Economic planners in India and Thailand are hoping that Burma’s chairmanship of Asean starting in a few months’ time will reignite interest by the Naypyidaw government in the long-stalled “trilateral highway” to link the three countries.

The highway has been on the agenda for 15 years. The Indian government spent US$30 million building 100 miles (160 km) of new road from the India-Burma border at Moreh-Tamu across Sagaing Division in 2001, but it still ends in dust and mud in the middle of nowhere.

A new appeal to the Burmese government to get on with the project was made at the Asean summit in Brunei last week, where Burma was formally awarded the 2014 chairmanship of the 10-country bloc.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra urged Burma’s President Thein Sein to help achieve a 2016 target date proposed by New Delhi and Bangkok for final completion of the trilateral highway.

Yingluck made a similar appeal when she and India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met in May to discuss trade links.

“Billions [of US dollars] could be saved on shipping if an easy overland route was developed from Southeast Asia to India and more westerly nations,” the US business magazine Forbes commented earlier this year in a report on the economic opening up of Burma. But the magazine also reported how India’s $30 million investment in road construction in Sagaing still ends in dust and riverbed mud.

The plan is for a continuous highway to run from Guwahati, the main city in India’s Assam State, through Burma via Mandalay and Rangoon and into Thailand at Mae Sot, where it would link into expressways down to the greater Bangkok industrial conurbation and the Gulf of Thailand.

The Indian government has promised to invest another US$100 million to expand the road beyond Kalewa in Sagaing and build dozens of bridges. It’s a major task, and India wants to do the work itself.

“The remaining work is building the 120-km long missing link in the Kalewa-Yargi sector and repair of 71 bridges on the Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road. This is very much doable by 2016,” New Delhi analyst and author Rajeev Sharma told The Irrawaddy this week.

Red tape and political lethargy have hindered completion of the trilateral highway, Sharma said.

“It is a tough terrain and somehow the three countries are laden with their respective domestic agendas and the political leaderships have not been able to sensitize and energize their respective bureaucracies. Had it been China, the project would have been completed in one year flat,” he said.

“Myanmar [Burma] is still opening up. The decades-long self-imposed iron curtain will take some time to be torn asunder completely. Myanmar is still a long time away from developing a strategic ethos and culture,” Sharma said.

Transport infrastructure remains primitive in many parts of Burma and the Naypyidaw government would have to reach international agreements on goods being carried in transit between India and Thailand, and beyond, analysts note. But there would be many beneficial spin-offs for Burma. A flourishing international road would lead to more prosperity for Burmese towns along the route, they believe.

“A road link between India and Southeast Asia has been proposed for many years as a key component of Delhi’s ‘Look East’ policy and the hope is that now that Myanmar is more fully re-integrating with its neighbors, this dream can be realised,” the economic attaché with a Western embassy in Bangkok told The Irrawaddy this week.

“Thailand and India are keen for obvious economic reasons, as should Myanmar be. I think the problem is that the Thein Sein government has many priorities to deal with and completing this road is just one of them. You have to keep that in mind when viewing 2016 as a completion date,” the embassy official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The foreign ministers of India, Burma and Thailand are due to meet before the end of this year to plan the highway’s future, Sharma told The Irrawaddy, but the reality of the present is summed up by Forbes magazine.

“When the Indian army constructed the road from the border crossing at Moreh and Tamu to … Kalewa, they were counting on Myanmar’s government to connect the highway to its interior,” reported Forbes in March. “That never happened; at Kalewa, the road turns onto a beautiful, expensive, and Indian-built suspension bridge, and then stops. It turns into a rutted, dust-covered dirt road that stretches on for another hundred miles, and is sometimes buried so deep in sand that motorcyclists cannot get up the hills.

“Freight drivers don’t trust [the bridges]. Instead, they’ve cut dirt paths into the dry river beds below. Of course, this only works when there’s no rain, making the highway inoperable about half the year.”

Perhaps this time Burma will help place the final pieces in the trilateral highway jigsaw: Thein Sein said last week his government’s motto for its Asean chairmanship is “Moving Forward in Unity.”