Published:  12:00 AM, 20 November 2020

Burma road-Ledo road-Stilwell road- I

Burma road-Ledo road-Stilwell road- I This map indicates the old route from Ledo.
The historical Road which went by all 3 above names is almost nonexistent now. But down the memory lane it still exists. It also exists in history and also in the memory of descendents of those Indian, Chinese, British and Americans who worked for its construction and those amongst them who lost their life at different stages of its construction.  There may still be a few of the constructors alive, who have made a century in their life span. These thousands of people who were deployed in curving out this life line for the Chinese, one of the Allied Forces, were mostly laborers, soldiers and Engineering Corps men belonging to the aforesaid countries mainly.

This part of the famous Road was of about 1100 miles long winding its way from Ledo in Assam of British India through steep passages of Eastern Himalayas and thick rainforests of Northern Burma up to Myitkina (via Shingbwiyana) to connect to Lashio near the Chinese border so that vital supplies could reach the Chinese Forces. The length of this stretch was about 1100 miles and about 1100 American soldiers lost their lives to derive the infamous nickname of "A man a mile" amongst the US soldiers.

Within Burma Lashio was connected to Rangoon by rail and the old China Road was constructed in 1938 to connect Kunming of Yunnan Province of south western China to Lashio in Burma to get a sea head upto Rangoon in British occupied Burma. This route was necessary for the Chinese to get British supplies in their war against Japan. British were still not at war. WW2 has not yet started.

To get down to the business of geography today, we better review a small part of not so old history which people may have well forgotten. I read about Ledo Road long ago and faintly remembered the name. It came alive in my memory when I was planning a trip of upper Assam a couple of years ago with Anjana and 2 other couples. It was a long trip involving many places of diverse interest but I did not forget to include India's Oil Capital Digboi, Coal Capital Margherita and of course my dream township Ledo at the borders of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar. This is where the famous (infamous) Road started. Ledo is hardly a three hour driving distance from the nearest airport Dibrugarh,the most important town in Upper Assam. We established contact with an important person of Margherita Engineer Debashis Das, an erstwhile Executive of Coal India and currently running his own business. He promised to accompany us to show us around, specially the open pit coal mining and the zero point of Ledo Road where a well decorated gateway at the beginning of the historically important path has been constructed.

Memorial plaques are put in place to depict the history of the nearly impossible construction. Many historically important facts are described in several boards. We set our feet on the entry point of the road, viewed all there were on display and got a thorough idea about what I read long back in time and remembered nothing about(except for few names).

Before commencing the journey, I made a little homework, as usual, which gave me the information that in Ledo they have Ledo Club which was a British era luxury for Coal Mines high Officials and high ups of nearby Tea gardens(we all know that upper Assam boasts of gardens producing high quality tea). Furthermore, my homework revealed that Lord Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy in India visited this front during WW2 and staying in Ledo Club he held important strategic meetings with Allied Commanders. Naturally, we had a desire to visit this important facility which of course is a historical landmark as well.

I hesitantly put forward our desire to Engr Debashis and to our pleasant surprise he said, "No problems". He himself was a member of the Club and in no time we were ushered into its premise. It was in the afternoon and hardly anybody except a few staff were there. It was clearly not Club time. Rather time to work. We did not have much time in hand either. The premise is not that big and the walking tour of the facility took a few minutes. But with every step we made, I thought some of those historical figures of Generals must have been exactly there some 75years ago.

We sat for some time in the lobby decorated in local Assamese style having an elaborate fireplace. The chairs and sofas looked ancient. Who knows some of them may have withstood test of time and survived. You get a strange feeling of mixed emotions when you encounter such occasion. We discussed some more about the road, place and history. Then the parting time came.

Now let's settle down for some history to understand the necessity of undertaking the seemingly impossible task of building this Road. The mighty Qing dynasty ruled unified huge Chinese Empire for several hundred years after their predecessors Ming Dynasty.

Ming Dynasty too was very powerful and established China's business relations towards west of China. It also spread Chinese Culture, Wisdom, Education and Art. Chinese ceramic and porcelain were introduced to the world by the Ming's. After about 250 years of Ming rule the Great Qing's came for about 300 years and have established the approximate boundaries of China which was close to its modern area and domination. China became a strong Empire consisting of many Nationalities of greater or smaller dimension, of many regions and Kingdoms, of various different people and tribes ruled by their own rulers or despots. In their heydays China was the 4th largest Empire of the world. Towards the end of the nineteenth century the grip of the Qing's on their huge territory was weakening. Meantime Japan was a rising power on the horizon. Japanese also had appetite for Imperialism and they wanted to have a slice of the Chinese Empire. The first Sino Japanese war broke out in 1894.

The one year war saw a Chinese defeat and it ended with Chinese losing some of its territories which among others included a few islands like important modern day Taiwan (Formosa in those days). The Chinese people were angered at this humiliation and their dissatisfaction against their Emperor grew due to high corruption, mal administration, misrule, economic disasters including famine, et all. Nationalistic movement started gaining momentum. Various anti imperialistic forces started to develop and getting organized. They started to raise localized protests, demonstrations and armed actions against the Imperial police.

In 1912 the Qing Dynasty Emperors were overthrown by a coalition of anti Imperial forces in a well orchestrated movement known as Xinhai Revolution in Chinese history. San Yat-sen a Physician (graduating from Hong Kong) emerged as the leader and first President of Provisional Government of Republic of China. He was a visionary leader and founding father of people's power. His dream and ideals were similar to our Bangabandhu. He propagated the idea of establishing Nationalism, Democracy and Socialism.

The union of other strong leaders under him gave him the strength. Amongst them we find Yuan Shikai from Northern China and Chiang Kai Shek from the South. Besides he had the support of the Communists and other warlords of different areas of the large Empire. For balance of power, he had to offer ROC Presidentship to the power hungry Yuan Shikai and remained as the leader of Kuomintang Party (Party of the Chinese Nationalists). Later he was in the helms of power as ROC Premier. Meantime, Chiang Kai Shek,a Military Academy graduate was getting organized and was ready to assume power of the Kuomintang Party, which he did after the expiry of San Yat-sen in1925 (due to liver cancer).

Chiang Kai Shek took over the reigns of the Kuomintang Party, organized his armed forces, forged an alliance between his Kuomintang and Chinese Communist Party and led the 1926-28 Northern Expedition to get rid of Yuan Shikai and laid foundation of a strong Nationalist Government of ROC. He was a great leader indeed having ruled ROC from 1927 upto 1975(till his death). Of course after 1949 when his Nationalist Kuomintang Forces lost mainland China's control to the Communist Party of China led by another great leader Mao ze Dong; he had been in power only in Taiwan (current geographical entity). Taiwan still goes by the name Republic of China. All these years after the 1st Sino Japanese war the animosity between the Imperial Japanese and Nationalist Chinese forces never decreased. Territorial disputes were always there China reclaiming lost land in 1894-5 war.

The Japanese Imperialism was building its military stronger during these days and were eyeing at acquiring further territories for sources of raw materials for its industries and also for marketing their produce. As any other Imperialist force they also were looking for cheap sources of manpower and exploiting agricultural and other wealth of colonies.

To meet their end, Japan annexed Manchuria (current North Eastern China and part of Russia)in 1931. ROC Army could not prevent that but skirmishes continued between the two forces. By 1937-8 the situation worsened and a full scale war, the 2nd Sino Japanese war broke out. The Japanese were so well organized and amassed such military strength that within a short period of time, they annexed the whole eastern strip of Chinese territory denying the Chinese of any access to their sea ports.

A huge chunk of Chinese territory in the North including Beijing, Sanghai, Nanjing, etc. was also swallowed up. Chiang Kai Shek too was a great military leader by then having assumed the rank of Generalissimo. He had a huge Army of his ROC. The Kuomintang joined hands with CPC under Comrade Mao and also with other regional warlords of China and put up a good show of resistance and resilience. (To be continued…)

The writer is a travel enthusiast and history buff

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