After 70 years of lobbying, the last state in Myanmar without an airport is finally on the verge of receiving its own runway – a move advocates say could kickstart tourism in one of the remotest corners of the country.
Earlier this month, parliament approved a request from the Ministry of Transport for K1 billion to begin construction of an airport in northern Chin State, the only one of the nation’s 14 states that is not connected to domestic air services. The funding is for 2015-16, with more expected in coming years.
The long-awaited airport has been in the works since at least 1934, when surveyors from the British colonial government identified a mesa in Falam township’s Surbon village as the ideal spot, owing to the relative lack of nearby mountains and favourable weather conditions.
The Japanese invasion in 1942 put any construction plans on hold, however. The plan did not gain momentum again until 1962, when the newly established people’s councils of the Ne Win regime began pressing the central government to give Chin State an airstrip.
The residents of Falam were so confident that the government would follow the advice of the British surveyors that they started construction on the suggested plot, even before they gained official permission from the government. Working with hoes, pick-axes and donations of food and money from the surrounding villages, the anxious residents hoped to kick-start a new era for their impoverished state.
“I remember it was raining, but we hoped for the best,” said U Van Gyi, an 86-year-old part-time teacher in Falam, recalling the 1963 groundbreaking ceremony.
Work to clear the airstrip continued for several weeks. As the months dragged on and no word came from the government, however, the donations dried up and work ceased.
Several Falam residents speculated that momentum for the project deteriorated because of the regime’s paranoia that Indian armed groups would use the airstrip for an invasion. The speculation was not entirely unfounded as later events revealed. In 1968, five years after the airport project was put on hold, fighters from the Mizo National Front – which was fighting the government of India for independence – crossed the border and occupied Falam for five days. The fighters looted the treasury and burned down a police station before eventually withdrawing.
The airport project was shelved for another four decades. Then in 2010, national elections gave Chin politicians a public platform to press for infrastructure in their largely undeveloped state.
U Thein Sein’s government agreed to build an airport, but then the location became a matter of dispute. Chin politicians were split over where it should go, with many pressing for it in their home constituencies. U Van Gyi described the debate as a “tug-of-war” that further delayed a final decision.
Once again, Falam residents took matters into their own hands. The village elders formed an airport implementation committee to solicit donations and sent several work crews and bulldozers to Surbon to clear the site.
Salai Robin, an MP representing Haka in the Chin State Hluttaw, acknowledged that the green light for the long-awaited airport caused a good deal of contention.
“Many people have different views, but [Falam] is fine for me. We have to put it where it is best,” he told The Myanmar Times after the ministry made its final decision.
Local leaders are cautiously optimistic about the economic benefits the new airport can bring.
Salai Lal Tin Mang, a Falam town elder who sits on the airport implementation committee, said he and his colleagues do not see the new infrastructure as supporting industrial development, as the airstrip will at most be able to accommodate medium-sized passenger planes.
However, it will open up the state to tourism, ensuring that visitors no longer have to travel overland from Bagan or Kalemyo in Sagaing Region.
“We have no industry [in Chin State] … We need to rely on income from tourism,” he said.
Fewer than 1000 foreign tourists reportedly visited Chin State in 2013, but since then the government has relaxed travel restrictions in most areas, making the state much easier to access.
While all the Chin leaders interviewed for this article were pleased about the recent approval for the state’s airport, several expressed frustration that the process has dragged on for so long.
U Thwang Bik, a pastor with the Falam Baptist Church, said it was unfair that people had to resort to using their own money to start construction on an airport.
“People are wondering why it took so long, and why they allowed competition between the different towns,” he said. “We feel like we are abandoned.”
The Department of Civil Aviation did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But Salai Robin said the long-running airport saga was one of many examples of central government neglect.
“It’s not only the airport – the [construction of] roads and everything else are always delayed for Chin State,” he said.
And Chin State’s long wait for an airstrip isn’t actually over yet. When the airport will be completed remains an open question. According to Salai Lal Tin Mang, the implementation committee estimates it will cost K15 billion to complete – meaning less than 7pc of the cost has been funded so far.
“Never mind, K1 [billion] is better than zero, isn’t it?” Salai Lal Tin Mang said. “We are very happy now … We will finish this project one step at a time.”
Source: Myanmar Times