Five kilometres from the Thai-Burma border, a colourful sign proudly declares Mae Sot to be Thailand’s link in an economic corridor that was supposed to boost business between the country and regional trading partners Burma, China and India.
From here, it’s a less than 15-minute drive along the impressive six-lane, landscaped Asian Highway to the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge–an imposing concrete structure over the River Moei, which forms the official border between the two.
But it’s not just the swollen, muddy river that currently separates the towns on either side of the border—or Burma’s decision in early July to close the crossing here. The fact is that despite their proximity, the two places are worlds apart.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The infrastructure on the Thai side is strikingly developed–mobile phone towers, giant electrical pylons, designer shopfronts, well-stocked supermarkets, restaurants, two large hospitals and an airport. But the hustle and bustle of Mae Sot's product-packed shops is a stark contrast with the drabness of poverty-stricken Myawaddy on the Burmese side of the river.
‘There are plans to make both sides of the border a special economic zone, but on the Burma side it’s a mess,’ says one local businessman. ‘The roads are pot-holed, electricity is either non-existent or unreliable, and there’s not even a constant supply of piped water. And we’re also worried that they (Burma’s ruling junta) are unreliable investment partners.’
Despite a visit from Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to Burma last month, numerous ministerial level talks between the two countries and daily pleas from traders who are losing as much as 100 million baht a day, the border remains closed.
But trying to understand what’s going on in Burma from the regime’s cryptic announcements is fraught with difficulties.
To many business people (on both sides of the border) the current closure is seen as an excessive reprisal for the building of an easy-to-remove concrete embankment on the Thai side. But with trade losses so far estimated at close to 10 billion baht and climbing, the lack of consumer goods available in product-starved Burma is hurting its people.
Exiled political opponents of Burma’s military junta, though, see another motive. With the country’s first election in 20 years just days away, exiles claim the closure is aimed at stopping cross-border anti-government activities aimed at disrupting the polls or distributing campaign materials to voters.