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.
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.
Over the past 12 months, the Burma Army has attempted to disarm and dismantle ethnic ceasefire groups under its control. The regime had hoped to reduce their size and reform the groups into a Border Guard Force and bring them under the strict control of the army. But senior army officers tasked with the job of establishing the BGF met with various degrees of armed resistance as the militia groups tried to retain power, their considerable assets and their ethnic identities.
Infighting between the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army militia leaders over the BGF takeover resulted in a split, with one commander, Col. Saw Lah Pwe, taking control of about 1,200 armed militia and the unofficial tax gates in the Phop Pra area north of Mae Sot. The breakaway group has also started ‘talking’ to the regime’s long-time enemy the Karen National Union.
Thailand’s 4th Infantry Regiment, which is based in Mae Sot, is taking both Burma’s elections and threats from the armed ethnic groups extremely seriously, and there has been a noticeable bolstering of security along the border areas and opposite Myawaddy.
Until the border closure, fleets of old, rusting and exhaust fume-belching Burmese registered mini-vans belted to and fro between the two towns. The vans were typically full of Burmese being ferried over the border to shop, visit clinics, pharmacies and markets. Those coming to shop weren’t looking to take advantage of the luxury goods available in Thailand—most were coming to pick up basics like toothpaste, cough syrup, soap, tinned fish, instant noodles and sugar.
The owner of the Pranart Kan Fai-Fa electrical store on Mae Sot’s main street said it used to be hard to find a parking space outside his store because there were so many Burmese vehicles coming and going.
‘Before the bridge closed there’d be as many as 25 vans outside, but now there are none,’ he says. ‘I sold TV’s, fridges, washing machines, cameras and DVD players to Burmese people. I had five employees, but now I only have two’.
‘I was selling more than a 100,000 baht a day in goods, but now I’m lucky to sell one or two thousand baht. My takings are down by 80 percent,’ he adds.
Further down the street, the owner of a large, well-stocked pharmacy says it’s ordinary Burmese who are suffering the most. ‘We sold lots of medicines, mainly everyday items like paracetamol’, he says. ‘People in Burma go to the hospital and get a prescription, but not medicine. For that, they’d cross the border to us.’
Prasert Juengkijrungroj, the secretary general of the Tak Chamber of Commerce and a director of the Honglong group of companies based in Mae Sot, says the three main items exported through Mae Sot to Burma have tended to be petrol, cooking gas and cooking oil.
‘In 2009, exports through Mae Sot to Burma were worth 25 billion baht,’ he says, adding that the figure was a considerable increase from the five billion baht they earned in 2005. ‘This year, before the [border] closure, we’d estimated our exports would earn us more than 30 billion baht.’
Most of the business people on the Thai side who were interviewed for this article said that they are convinced the border will remain closed until at least after Burma’s election.
International human rights groups and exiled Burmese opposition politicians and activists, meanwhile, have said the elections are anyway nothing more than part of a long-term strategy to hijack the democratic process by extending the regime’s military control through a rigged ballot and the election of a civilian proxy.
‘People who believe Burma will be a far more open and free country after the election are being naïve,’ says David Mathieson, senior Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch. ‘The military or the people close to the military…business people or the supporters of the regime won’t want to give more power or basic freedoms to the majority of the population.’
But any concerns about the junta, or frustration over the closed border crossing, haven’t stopped Thailand from dropping its once vocal opposition to human rights abuses by Burma’s junta. Indeed, the Democrat Party led-government has taken steps to ensure that its trade relations with Burma remain a priority before and after the elections.
On returning from a one-day trip to meet with Burma’s leaders, Abhisit announced that an agreement had been reached on a number of initiatives that would boost trade between the two countries. These include developing a deep-sea port at Dawai (or Tavoy) on Burma’s Andaman Sea and a super highway linking it to Kanchanburi in Thailand. Meanwhile, both governments have said they’ll cooperate on migrant labor issues and that an upgrade of the Singkhon checkpoint is planned, which will service the new economic centre in southern Burma.
But while the Thai government is quick to note that Thailand is currently Burma’s biggest trading partner, a recent report in the pro-regime Myanmar Times suggests it may be about to be supplanted by China.
In May, China announced investment of more than $8 billion in energy and mining projects in Burma, while Thailand’s investment in the country currently sits at around $7.4 billion. The announcement, which marks a considerable increase from 2006, when official investment was less than $200 million, has been seen as a solid show of support for the regime ahead of the November 7 elections.
Meanwhile, though, as Burma sets its long-term sights on investors further afield than Thailand, in the short-term Mae Sot business people are worried about how long they can sustain their losses with the border closed.
‘Its forced prices up. People are having to pay higher costs to smuggle goods across the border or send them considerable distances to crossing points further north,’ Prasert says. ‘It’s a complicated issue and it’s up to the Burma government to reopen it. Thailand is ready—our side never closed.’