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Mountain-top airstrip to be vital link for remote Myanmar villagers, thanks to charity, S’pore donors

SINGAPORE — For the villagers of a remote mountain community in western Myanmar, it takes three days to get to a hospital in the nearest city, Bagan, about 650km away by road. And that is when conditions are favourable.

Mountain-top airstrip to be vital link for remote Myanmar villagers, thanks to charity, S’pore donors

Residents of Lailenpi, a town in Myanmar’s western Chin State, attend the May 19, 2019 groundbreaking ceremony for an airstrip that is being built in their community.

SINGAPORE — For the villagers of a remote mountain community in western Myanmar, it takes three days to get to a hospital in the nearest city, Bagan, about 650km away by road. And that is when conditions are favourable.

During the monsoon season, torrential rainfall causes frequent mudslides that make travel along the winding dirt road leading to the town of Lailenpi impassable to four-wheeled vehicles for up to seven months of the year. Those in desperate need of medical care risk an eight-day journey by motorcycle.

A narrow dirt road leads up to Lailenpi, a town in Myanmar’s western Chin State. Photo: MAF

However, a project by an international Christian-based non-profit charity could soon shorten that same arduous journey to as little as 46 minutes — a potentially life-saving transformation.

The Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), which has over 70 years’ experience in constructing airstrips in remote parts of the world, says that it is on track to finish building Chin State’s first airstrip by May next year, and end years of isolation for the people residing in the mountainous region. MAF’s Singaporean arm is a key supporter of the project.

LANDING ATOP A MOUNTAIN

Located in Lailenpi, the airstrip will not only benefit the town’s 4,000 residents, but around 40,000 people in surrounding communities.

MAF — which provides aviation, communications, and learning technology services to humanitarian agencies — says this represents about 23 per cent of the population of the southern part of Chin State.

Captain Alan Chan, the chairman of MAF’s Singaporean arm, told TODAY that Lailenpi is on the ridge of a mountain, with very steep slopes on all sides.

During a drive up to the town, he said he witnessed tombstones along the side of the road to honour those whose journeys ended badly — tragic reminders of how treacherous the road can be.

“There is almost no flat land to build a runway,” said the 60-year-old commercial pilot, who explained that two mountaintops and valleys had to be cleared and filled for the construction of the runway.

Aside from the terrain, another challenge that Cpt Chan spoke of was the weather. He related how landslides triggered by heavy rain had caused 40 drums of oil, meant to be used for construction vehicles, to be stuck along the road for five months.

“We had to station people there to guard it,” he said.

When completed, the airstrip will be administered by the local government. Situated about 1,370m above sea level, it will be under 800m in length and about 15m wide.

For comparison, the runway at Changi Airport is around 4,000m in length, while that of Seletar Airport is about 1,000m.

An aerial view of the airstrip that is currently being built on top of a mountain in Lailenpi, a town in Myanmar’s western Chin State. Photo: MAF

Cpt Chan, who has over 40 years of flying experience, said Lailenpi’s airstrip is just long enough for light aircraft to land on, but he cautioned that pilots flying in should still be sufficiently experienced as both sides of the runway are “drop-offs”.

ENDING ISOLATION

Started in 1945 by veteran World War II pilots from the United States and the United Kingdom, MAF’s goal is to provide remote and inaccessible communities with access to healthcare, education and community development, among other things.

The organisation operates around 135 aircraft in more than 30 developing countries worldwide.

Cpt Chan, who was one of the Singaporeans involved in the project, said that MAF was searching for a remote area to develop an airfield in Myanmar around 2013.

Eventually, MAF narrowed its search to the Lailenpi township.

Cpt Chan said the town had a high infant mortality rate. While Myanmar-based non-governmental organisation Health & Hope was able to bring down the rates by teaching the villagers simple hygiene and midwifery techniques, he said MFA realised that it was not enough.

“If there is any medical emergency, there is almost no chance of getting any help at all,” he said.

In 2016, engineers conducted a feasibility study and found that while it would be difficult to build an airstrip in Lailenpi, it was not impossible.

Myanmar’s Vice President Henry Van Thio, who also happens to be an ethnic Chin, gave the official approval in 2017 and construction began in earnest in March this year.

Cpt Chan said the cost for the airport was originally estimated to have been around US$2 million (S$2.7 million), but with changes to its design and tender process, the team was able to bring the cost down to around US$1.3 million.

MAF International contributed about US$350,000 from its own coffers and raised about US$500,000 from its donors. Meanwhile, MAF Singapore raised about US$180,000.

While they are still raising funds for the remaining amount, Cpt Chan said the sum they collected was sufficient to kick start the project.

Cpt Chan said that when he spoke to some of the villagers, they told him they were very excited over the project.

“They always felt as if they were a forgotten people,” he said. “Now there is somebody who is willing to help them end isolation by not only building roads, but an airfield.”

PAYING FOR A FLIGHT WITH CHICKENS

Once the airstrip is operational, Cpt Chan said it will be able to provide commercial flights as well transport service for humanitarian workers, and even the villagers seeking to travel to the city for medical treatment.

When asked how impoverished villagers will be able to afford a flight, he said MAF will be able to subsidise the bulk of the cost for them, and they will just have to pay a nominal amount.

“They may even say: ‘Here are two chickens’,” said Cpt Chan.

MAF said Lailenpi's airstrip will complement a larger central airport hub being constructed in the town of Falam, and will be part of a series of small airports planned for the state.

Cpt Chan also hopes that the new airstrip will open more economic opportunities and development for the community.

For one thing, they could potentially start exporting their agricultural produce.

Secondly, the construction of the airport itself will provide jobs for the community.

“There are also people who are interested in ecotourism,” he added. “But they will need to go there and survey the land first. And to take three days to get there is just not feasible.”

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