MAE SOT, Thailand — Merchants with a stake in the enormous off-the-books trade at the border crossing here say their business has taken a hit since the Thai military staged a coup last month.
Legal two-way border trade across the Moei River has resumed after a brief interruption in the immediate aftermath of the coup, but currently only goods from Thailand can be transported into Burma at the so-called “informal trading centers.” Burmese goods are not being allowed to enter Thailand through these channels.
Regarding the flow of people between the two countries, formal crossings over the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge are proceeding as usual, but the so-called “informal crossings” via boats have ceased since the military coup in Thailand on May 22.
The informal trading centers at the Mae Sot-Myawaddy border were shut down for two days following the coup, reopening early last week. Merchants on the border said trading conditions remain restricted under the new junta government in Bangkok, although goods ranging from vehicles and vegetable oil to cement and petrol have continued to pass from Thailand to Burma, both formally and informally.
“We can send the goods from Thailand, but within a limited time set by the Thai military, and it is not as free as in the past,” said a merchant, who declined to be named, some 12 days after the Thai coup.
Much of the trade conducted between the two countries is carried out informally, as this allows for more timely transactions that also bypass some of the duties levied by the respective governments.
Hein Thu, a border-based merchant in Mae Sot, told The Irrawaddy that “it is not yet back to a free trading situation as before,” adding that traders were wrapping up their day’s work earlier as a result of the Thai military’s decision to curb the window in which cross-border transactions are allowed.
Traders are seeing “less demand,” Hein Thu said, pointing to the automobile market as an example. Usually, car dealers or other buyers from the Burmese side cross into Thailand and choose whatever they want and negotiate prices.
Traders on the border said that before the coup, dealers transported goods to the Burma side up until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. at informal trading centers, depending on market demand. Now trading closes at 4 p.m. every day.
Myawaddy residents told The Irrawaddy that the prices of Thai goods in Myawaddy are almost no different than before the Thai coup, but that the slowdown in border commerce was beginning to have knock-on effects, including crimping the livelihoods of many people who rely on the transportation needs of those involved in trading.
“I have not heard of much increase in prices yet on Thai products and have seen the goods and products of Thailand are being imported via the bridge,” said Sein Bo, a Myawaddy resident.
The new arrangements at the Mae Sot-Myawaddy crossing do not appear to apply across the other four official border crossings between Thailand and Burma.
Another border checkpoint, at Three Pagodas Pass in Sangkhlaburi Township, is completely closed and no Burmese are being allowed to enter the Kingdom there.
But a Tachileik resident told The Irrawaddy that the Mae Sai-Tachileik friendship bridges remained opened as usual.