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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 March 2007, 14:28 GMT
Illicit trade on the Thai-Burma border
Friendship bridge between Burma and Thailand
More seems to go under than over the Friendship Bridge
In the last of a series from the Thai-Burma border, the BBC's Kate McGeown looks at trade between the two nations, including the thriving black market.

The river Moei forms a natural divide between Thailand and Burma - and separates the Thai border town of Mae Sot from its Burmese counterpart, Myawadi.

If you go down to the river during the day, it looks a quiet, peaceful place.

A few people wander across the large Friendship Bridge connecting the two countries, but most are asleep at home, or idly chatting with friends.

At night, though, it is a different story. Suddenly, all the people on the riverbank spring into action, rowing or even swimming across the water, laden with commodities to sell on the other side.

This nocturnal trade is easy enough to explain: While Thailand has relatively few import and export restrictions, the Burmese government has banned the import of many basic commodities, to ensure it retains tight control over the movement of goods.

A truck crossing the river to avoid going over the Friendship Bridge

It also makes life difficult for exporters - who find themselves saddled with high taxes and lengthy delays while their applications are being processed.

The result is a thriving black market. Merchants cross over the Friendship Bridge during the day, agree to buy certain goods, then come back empty-handed.

As dusk falls, boats, rafts and even old tractor tyres start appearing, ready to haul the relevant items over the river to fulfil the merchants' orders - avoiding the officialdom on the bridge.

Bribery system

This cross-border trade works on a well-organised system of bribery.

One man, who spends every evening moving furniture from Burma to Thailand, said he has to pay bribes on the Burmese side, the Thai side, and even to cross a small island in between.

"I get paid 250 baht ($7) for taking a pile of chairs over - I have to pay 100 baht to the Burmese, 50 baht to the Thais and 30 baht on the island. The rest is my fee," he said.

Suchart Treeratvattana, the former chairman of the Chamber of Commerce in Tak province, which includes Mae Sot, admitted he knew that this nocturnal trade was happening.

"Obviously it's a problem for the other end, but it doesn't concern Thailand," he said. "After all, the Burmese people need these commodities."

Mr Suchart was less ready to admit to other types of cross-border trade, though.

Sometimes the carriers hide the gems inside their bodies - I don't ask how they do it
Gem trader
He denied any knowledge that sex trafficking took place, although Mae Sot is thought to be one of the main routes through which women are being trafficked into Thailand.

He also said that since the drugs crackdown under former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2003, narcotics are no longer being brought over the border from Burma to Thailand.

But according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), there has actually been a recent increase in the amount of amphetamine-type stimulants (such as the popular drug Ya Ba) crossing the border, despite a reduction in the smuggling of opium and heroin.

Jade trading

Another, more obvious, type of cross-border trade is in gemstones.

The Tak Chamber of Commerce does not keep data on how many precious stones are brought into the area from Burma; Mr Suchart said that official figures were so small as to be insignificant.

But you only need to walk down one of the main streets in Mae Sot to see that while legal gem trading may be practically non-existent, the illegal sale of Burmese gemstones is flourishing.

A merchant in one of the town's many jade markets estimated that Mae Sot had about 1,000 gem traders.

She explained that she had little choice but to come over the border and sell her wares in Thailand.

Gem market in Mae Sot
It is very easy to find Burmese gem traders in Mae Sot
Her family owns a small mine in the northern Burmese region of Mogok - where most of the country's sapphires, rubies and jade come from.

She said that if she tried to sell the stones in Burma, the authorities would demand the best ones for themselves, so she could not make a living.

Instead, she hires people to bring them across to Mae Sot.

"Sometimes the carriers hide the gems inside their bodies - I don't ask how they do it," she said.

"Our carriers have to be people we know well, as we have to really trust them. Twice last year, I used a carrier who ran off with my jewels."

While the gem traders in Mae Sot - both Thai and Burmese - are looking to gain from this illicit trade, the real winners are the foreign buyers.

In one shop I met a Sri Lankan dealer who was buying a blue star sapphire for 400,000 baht ($11,500). He confessed he could easily double his money, selling the stone on the international market.

Increasingly alone

The Burmese are such a huge presence in Mae Sot that you can never forget the country's proximity to this industrial Thai town.

In some ways - notably cheap goods and labour - Thailand definitely benefits from having such a poor nation on its doorstep.

But as the poverty gap rises, and Burma's problems get progressively worse, the positives are being increasingly outweighed by the negatives.

It is not just Thailand that is getting fed up with Burma. The regional grouping Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations) and the international community are gradually losing their patience as well.

They are frustrated by the government's continued refusal to progress towards democracy, and angry at the poverty, human rights abuses and high levels of black market trading, such as that seen openly in Mae Sot.

Perhaps it is apt that so few people are going over the Friendship Bridge.

Right now, Burma does not seem to have many friends left.

Please click below for previous articles in the series:

Do you live on the Thai-Burma border? Use the form below to send us your experiences and comments. Here are some comments from previous articles:

When I read this article, I feel really sorry for my people. Wherever we stay, we feel the same feeling. We don't feel safe. I hope one day we can all go back to our own land with peace. I miss my family and I often feel home sick. If I have a chance, I will go back to my home in Burma. Min Suu Mon, Chiang Mai,Thailand

I visited an orphanage for Karen children in the north of Thailand. The stores from these children are heart-breaking. According to Thai law they can remain in Thailand until they are 15. Then they must return to Burma. I hope the future will be brighter for them. James Casey, Chaing Rai, Thailand

I spent my first 12 in Karen State, and then nine years in a Karen refugee camp in Thailand. I came to Canada through World University Services of Canada Refugee Sponsorship Programme three years ago. After reading this article, I feel that I have a great responsibility to carry on the struggle for the Karen who have been suffering human right abuses for more than five decades. I personally think that the British bear a great responsibility for the Karen people. The Karen people were loyal to the British during Second World War and now they are forgotten by their allies. They are just fighting for justice. I really hope that the international community is aware of the plight of Karen people and their struggle. Slone Phan, Canada

I used to teach Burmese refugees in Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border. I had a class of ten with students from different ethnic groups. I remember my Karen student fondly. He was a tall, plain-spoken man, about 30 years old. His dream was to be reunited with his family and to settle down for a peaceful life of farming in his native land. In fact, he wanted to return home so badly that he was seriously considering giving up his political struggle in the border region. The Burmese junta is waiting for more kind-hearted people like him to lose hope and resign themselves to living without basic human rights. I don't blame the Karen for fighting. Nor do I blame my former student for wanting to give up. When Burma's neighbours choose to engage with one of the worst governments in the world and the great powers cannot muster enough political muscle to improve life for the Burmese, her citizens are often left with no other choice but to engage with the generals, with or without guns. Joshua Wickerham, USA

I used to visit Mae Sot and Mae La camp quite often as a volunteer working in Bangkok. The situation for the political refugees and economic migrants is horrific. After they are caught by the Thai authorities they are often made to wait for days without food and water before deported to Burma. Those deported back to Burma through the Three Pagodas Pass area are subject to more danger, as it is less populated than Mae Sot. I've seen harassment of Karen refugees by Thai police and military not only in the border regions but also in Bangkok, where many Karen come while being processed to a third country. They are subject to searches and bribes when found out by the police. These Karen often hold official UN refugee status identification. Ryan Hughes, Oregon, US

I am from Thailand and I used to work in three different Karen refugee camps on the Thai-Burma Border. There are several NGOs working in those camps to make sure that the refugees have access to basic commodities. It's true that the Thai government has a strict policy towards illegal migrant workers, but it's also the business owners who encourage this practice. At one point there was a call for all illegal workers to register themselves with the government so that they will be on the record. However, most business owners refused to participate in because it's not in their interest to pay proper wages. Thailand will not be able to absorb all these refugees. Also the resettlement programme in third country is a very lengthy process and only special cases will be considered seriously. The only sustainable solution is to make Burma safe for them to return. Preyapan, Liberia

Three years ago, my wife and I attended a dinner party in France, and were seated at a table with a newly-wed couple. She is Burmese and he is British, and they were on their way back to Burma, after their honeymoon in Europe. I was about to ask them how the bride managed to come and go as she pleased, and why would they go back to live under such a regime, when I realized that they were part of the regime. From that point on, I could hardly wait for the meal to end. Were it not for the coddling by a few Western elite, the Burmese elite just might reflect more on their actions. Jonas South, US

I worked in a refugee facility in Mae Sot as a volunteer teacher in 2005. I worked mainly with Karen refugees. I have the tragedies that some of the refugees have experienced, especially children who have lost parents in the struggle and have lived in refugee camps in Thailand for several years. The hopelessness of the situation is daunting, yet the resilience and the confidence of the refugee peoples is both inspiring and humbling. Martin Morris, Australia

Migrants are active in trying to improve their situation in Thailand, both with regards to their working conditions and health care. Many migrants volunteer to be community health workers. Groups of migrants working in exploitative conditions have taken their labour cases through the legal mechanisms in Thailand and through their courage have improved some of these mechanisms. Many of the labour issues faced by Burmese migrants are the same issues faced by local Thai workers and the Thai Labour Solidarity Committee recently petitioned the government to improve the working conditions of migrant workers. Jacie Pollock, Chiang Mai, Thailand


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