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Wednesday, 13 March, 2002, 18:31 GMT
Boom time for counterfeit trade
Tamu market
The origin of the goods is not advertised
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By Subir Bhaumik
BBC South Asia reporter in Tamu, Western Burma
line

This is Burma's latest offering - a shopper's paradise right on the Indian border. A carton of 200 Marlboro cigarettes costs as little as 50 Indian rupees (0.73, $1).

A litre bottle of "Johnny Walker Black Label" whisky or Napoleon cognac can be bought for just 200 rupees.

Add a 100 more and you can buy a pair of Nike trainers.

"No duty free shop anywhere in the world can match our prices. Everything here is one-tenth to one-fifteenth of the original prices," says Aung Naing, a Burmese shopkeeper selling cigarettes, liquor, soap and cosmetics in the Ngalamung market located near a Burmese checkpoint at Tamu, which is opposite the Indian town of Moreh.

Aung Naing is right - but he refuses to say where he procures his wares.

That is a secret none of nearly 600 shopkeepers in the market would like to disclose.

A secret source

By speaking to Burmese wholesale merchants who control the central mart of the Ngalamung market, it was finally possible to find out where all the goods came from.

Chinese goods
Goods are coming from China
"Our stuff comes from factories in China's Yunnan province bordering North Burma. Burma has been flooded with these fake brands and now they are finding their way into India," said Kharga Bahadur.

"Our trucks go to a border posts in Upper Burma and pick up the goods in bulk from Chinese wholesalers who have set up huge marts inside Burmese territory," said Rama Sundaram, a transport operator.

"But I understand all these goods are only shipped into Burma and perhaps other towns in Nepal and India. They are not taken back to China," he added.

It is not entirely unexpected.

If fake western brands circulate in China, a newly member of the World Trade Organisation, Western investigators are likely to pick them up and cause a scandal.

But if they are pushed into India through Burma or Nepal, the producers have a no-risk option to enter a huge market. Even if a fake is spotted, there are no traces of its origin.

Quality matters

I smoked a fake Marlboro, which tasted like a raw paper.

A market stall in Tamu
Shoppers are seduced by low prices
After a sip of my original Black Label whisky my Manipuri friends said it had "tasted so different" from what they were used to.

"We often have bad stomach upsets and hangovers after drinking a Scotch coming from Burma," said Oinam Sunil, a local journalist.

"It is a poor quality of these fake brands that gives some relief. People who used them once may be deterred from using them again. I used some of these soaps and when it began to itch, I came back to Indian ones," said Bibhuti Bhusan Chakma, an Indian customs officer in Moreh.

Locally produced whiskies are back in the Tamu market and locals are going back to them, avoiding the China-made Black Labels and Chivas Regals.

But newcomers to the market are seduced by the prices of the fakes.

"The cheap price of the fancy brands drives us mad," admitted Partha Das, a government official from Calcutta.

No pictures

There is one rule observed strictly here - "no pictures".

A huge "photography strictly prohibited" sign hangs over both the Indian checkpoint at Moreh and the Burmese one at Tamu.

A BBC television crew got into trouble with the Customs officials when they tried to film the checkpoint, through which hundreds of Burmese and Indians were freely crossing back and forth.

Finally, after much persuasion, the Indian customs only allowed our cameramen to shoot the Indian markets well inside Moreh.

But as long as you don't take your camera out, you can buy anything, smoke or drink anything in a small Burmese restaurant in Tamu and get back to the Indian town of Moreh without a problem.

The official border trade between India and Burma that started through Tamu and Moreh in the last decade failed to take off.

"Increasingly less and less items are figuring in the official list of bilateral trade, but a flow of fakes and contraband is booming dwarfing the legal trade," says N Kumar, chairman of the Moreh Chamber of Commerce.

See also:

11 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Burma's reliance on China
03 Dec 01 | Business
Fund giants warn against Burma trade
03 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
China educates pupils on copyright
20 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Pirated Chinese maps confuse tourists
23 Feb 01 | Media reports
Pirate Chinese TV defies state
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