Sunday, July 27, 2008

Cross-border Trade in Mae Sot

The Thai-Burma Friendship Bridge, linking the border towns of Mae Sot and Myawaddy (Photo: Moe Kyaw / The Irrawaddy)

By HTET AUNG Friday, July 25, 2008

AE SOT, Thailand — Sitting in a small truck crammed with passengers and packages, I waited for the short but exciting ride from Mae Sot Market to a small pier on the bank of the Moei River, known in Burma as the Thaungyin River, which serves as a natural border between Thailand and Burma.

The other passengers are neither foreigners nor Thai tourists, keen to explore the beauty of the Burma’s natural environment in the southeastern frontier.

They are all small and medium-size Burmese retailers returning to Myawaddy with goods bought from the Mae Sot Market.

Everyday, traders cross the Thai-Burma Friendship Bridge with one-day border passes and return to Myawaddy that evening loaded down with packages of goods to sell in the market.

“We have to rely on the Mae Sot Market for almost all the basic commodities, including cooking oil, vegetables, flowers and fruit. Myawaddy can produce nothing” said a middle-aged woman sitting next to me, who bought several boxes of chickens and duck eggs for her retail shop in the Myawaddy Market.

Although Myawaddy exports some goods to Mae Sot, such as onions, potatoes, dried chilly, sea food, crafts, Burmese traditional medicines, textiles and other items, the town has become mainly a transit stop for goods coming from other parts of Burma. Some Burmese goods in Mae Sot are even cheaper than in Myawaddy, because the Burmese traders sold them in the Mae Sot market for a good price.

In the middle of our trip, the Thai border patrol police stopped the truck and checked each person’s border pass. Nobody was required to bribe the police to transport their goods.

According to other passengers in the truck, there are three kinds of Burmese piers along the Moei River, each controlled by different Burmese authorities. They are Na Sa Ka (Department of Border Trade), Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and Ward Peace and Development Council (WPDC).

The Na Sa Ka authorities are the most corrupt, according to my companions, and retail vendors try to avoid them.

“When we went to the Na Sa Ka officials, we lost almost all of our profits because we had to bribe them with lots of money,” said a tradesman in the truck. “Although we are only small retailers, they asked for at least 2,000 kyat (US $1.80) for our goods.”

“I get a small profit of about 5,000 kyat ($4.50) after selling 400 duck eggs for several days. How can I pay what they ask for?” said an egg retailer. “Because of that, we usually use the gate controlled by the WPDC. They ask for 500 kyat ($ .45 cents) per retailer.”

Our truck arrived on the bank of the Moei River at No. 2 Gate, located about 2 kilometers from the friendship bridge.

After watching my companions load up a small boat and push off to the Burmese side of the river, I returned to the Mae Sot border gate, where I met a Burmese shop owner who operates a textile shop near the bridge. He spoke to me openly, but asked that his name not be used.

“I have lived here and had this shop for 20 years,” he said. “Doing business in Myawaddy is more difficult these days mainly because of the various rules of the authorities. Whenever a new township authority is appointed they declare new rules, and we have to follow them.

“Mae Sot has become a town where not only many Burmese migrants work, but also Burmese are setting up businesses,” he said. “The advantage of having a shop in Mae Sot is that if you can officially open a shop and pay tax to the Thai authorities, they never disturb your business.”

An older Burmese shop owner at the Mae Sot Market said he had no complaints about doing business in Thailand.

“I have lived here since I was 18 years old,” said Daw Aye Aye Khine, the owner of the Moe Kote Drug Store. “My business is now doing well. During 30 years, I have never feared the Thai authorities because I pay tax regularly and follow their rules.”

Interestingly, the two Burmese businessmen in Mae Sot didn’t mention democracy or military rule when they talked about their frustration with the Burmese economy. They only mentioned the rule of law and good governance, which can create an environment that promotes economic and social life.

Corruption clearly exists in Burma and elsewhere, the businessmen said. Several mentioned big Burmese traders who benefit from the border trade because of their closeness to local authorities.

The egg retailer said “Some big traders in Myawaddy got rich by importing zinc roofs after Cyclone Nargis.”

Although the two counties opened official border trade after the Thai-Burma Friendship Bridge opened in 1997, most of the trade still takes place like in the old days before the bridge with smaller and middle-size business people trading goods through more than a dozen piers along Moei River.

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