MAE SOT, THAILAND —
Thailand and Myanmar are working on big plans to boost trade and entice businesses to locate along their long land border. The influx of money is reshaping a region that has suffered from long-running ethnic conflicts.
In western Thailand, where the Moei (Thaunggin) river marks the Myanmar border, economists estimate trade at this key border crossing reached more than a billion dollars last year.
With Thailand’s economy stalling following last year's coup, the ruling junta is focusing on boosting growth with development projects and free-trade zone deals to increase cross-border trade.
A second bridge is under construction for heavy trucks, which backers hope could quickly double trade in Mae Sot.
Meanwhile, there are ongoing efforts in Thailand’s neutral territory to resolve the long-running conflict between ethnic-rebel armies and the Myanmar military.
Thai 4th Infantry Division commander Nopporn Reungjan sees the investment, infrastructure and talks as stepping stones to permanent peace.
“The booming economy can help to solve the problems with all ethnic groups," he said. "This is a tool to speed up the talks. We open the special economic zones for easier cross-border trading for both countries. Open the world economy to benefit everyone."
Incentives like tax breaks and quick work permits also have been introduced to attract businesses. And a recent trade fair promoting exporter potential has attracted ethnic business leaders, like Soe Thein.
“Recently, we have achieved peace in our area. Our region will start developing now as we have enough human resource and natural resources," said Thein. "Therefore, we need to put even more efforts towards the region’s development.”
Despite the economic investments, more than 120,000 Karen refugees are still languishing in nine border camps without land back in Myanmar to return to.
Some refugees lost their land long ago. One man who fled Karen state 30 years ago and declined to give his name, said he received word that a Karen militia force now aligned with the government re-sold the village land to Burmese businesses.
For now, he can only see his former home from a Google map.
“If we go back the price of the land must be higher because it is close to the border and also the development area so we think we cannot afford to buy it back so we have to look for a new place where we can stay,” said the refugee.
With the new investments, business is booming for some in Myanmar, but not for all.