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Burma Border Crossing Closure Impacts Trade in Thai Town

Bridge that connects Thai border town of Mae Sot to Burma
Bridge that connects Thai border town of Mae Sot to Burma

The Thai border town of Mae Sot is a key access point into Burma, both for trade and for people. But Burma's decision to close the border crossing is costing the local market millions of dollars in lost revenue.

A Chinese-made radio in the border market at Mae Sot plays Thai love songs. The radio stands among other electrical goods sold at more than 140 market stalls next to the Moei River, which marks the Thai-Burma border.

Bridge causes dispute

Next to the market is a four-lane bridge linking Mae Sot to the Burmese town of Myawaddy. But Burma's military government closed the crossing in July over a border dispute, and there are no immediate signs of when it will reopen.

Burma closed the checkpoint after Thailand began constructing a new embankment to prevent soil erosion. The Burmese government says the work has affected the boundary line between the countries.

Gai is a Burmese shop clerk whose home is in Myawaddy. She has been forced to stay in Thailand until the bridge reopens.

She says hopes are the military will reopen the bridge next month and then she will be able to go home and see her family. At the present, she says, life is more difficult and business is slow. But, she says the economy will improve once the bridge reopens.

Controlled access

Some traders in the town say Burma's government may plan to reopen the border after the country holds its first national elections in 20 years on November 7.

Burma's government is tightly controlling access to the country ahead of the election, and will not allow foreign journalists or election observers into the country.

The military says the election and the country's new constitution are part of its plan to bring back civilian rule after five decades.

But human rights activists and many outside governments, including the United States, consider the vote flawed because of tough election laws that hurt opposition candidates. In addition, the military is guaranteed a least a quarter of the seats in parliament.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said the election will not be credible if opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners are not freed first.

Essential stop

Mae Sot is a vital stop on a segment of the Asian Highway network. Burmese workers flood into Thailand to work at the many textile factories and on farms and construction sites.

In addition, more than 120,000 refugees who have fled poverty and ethnic fighting in Burma live in camps north of the town.

The bridge closure has hit business hard. Thailand's Foreign Trade Department puts the loss in trade at up to $3 million a day.

Trade through Mae Sot was worth about $860 million last year. Total trade between the countries is estimated to be worth $3.6 billion annually.

Business owners optimistic

On a quiet midweek afternoon, with few buyers approaching the stalls, Pongsit, who sells Burmese musical instruments, was upbeat about sales. He says the recent school vacation in Thailand has helped.

Pongsit says lately business has improved, with the schools closed and more people coming to the market. But the bridge closure has affected the business, and trade is also down due to the annual monsoon rains.

Om, the manager of a nearby store selling furniture made from Burmese timber, says trading has been slow due to the uncertainties in both the Thai and Burmese economies. In business for two decades, Om says she has seen many changes to the town, and she expects more once the Asian Highway network is completed, linking Thailand to almost all of Asia.

Om says once the elections are over she expects the business climate to improve with the bridge being reopened and more people coming to Mae Sot.

Hopes had been high that the border would be reopened after Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva visited Burma in mid-October. The visit largely focused on expanding investment and business cooperation between the neighbors.

But Mr. Abhisit returned home with no promise to open the bridge, and there are no signs that it will happen anytime soon.