Myanmar's border towns gasp for economic life

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2007, 12:00am

Western leaders proposing sanctions against Myanmar need to examine the nuts and bolts of the Myanmese economy in order to avoid harming ordinary people. They are already suffering from exorbitant living costs, a plummeting currency and isolation since the latest military crackdown on peaceful protesters.

A recent visit to Myanmar's southernmost port town, Kaw Thaung, shows how reliant the locals have become on trade with neighbouring countries. Over the past decade, increasing numbers of Thai traders and gamblers have ventured to a casino on so-called Rich Island and the bustling markets of the town. Many Bangkok-based expatriates and tourists came on 'visa runs'. However, I saw no other foreign visitors during my two-day stay. Many Myanmese say that, even without sanctions, they already feel isolated, because the crackdown is scaring away valuable traders and visitors.

Boat drivers, shop owners, a doctor and even government officers - who won't discuss politics for fear of joining an estimated 2,000 political prisoners - speak openly about their economic hardships. They say border towns are suffering more than the commercial capital, Yangon.

Since most merchandise comes from outside Myanmar, the cost of living in border towns is often higher than in Thailand. Yet workers in Myanmar make only US$1 or US$2 a day - about a third of what thousands of Myanmese exiles and illegal labourers earn in Thailand toiling in rubber plantations, fisheries and factories. The local currency, the kyat, has dwindled from a rate of 200 to the US dollar in 1997 to 900 last year, and now 1,500.

'We don't know where it's going to stop,' said a local shop owner who depends on rice and other foodstuffs from Thailand. 'The lower it goes, the more we have to pay for goods. It's becoming difficult to do things like eat or buy fuel.'

It's also difficult to finish building a market complex to replace one burned down two years ago, or build a road beyond the town. Students and others must travel 12 hours by boat to the nearest college in Dawei, and then 12 hours by road to Yangon.

With no public transport, many Myanmese have to either walk or whiz around traffic circles on made-in-Thailand motorbikes.

Even senior Myanmese monks, who would normally be meditating in the forest during the rainy season, worry about the economy. Inside a leafy monastery, they eat Thai rice from a made-in-Thailand rice cooker, call friends on mobile phones with Thai numbers, and watch TV news about Myanmar on Al-Jazeera, Germany's DW-TV or other networks on Thailand's UBC Cable TV.

They say economic conditions spurred their local protests last month, when many people joined about 50 monks in peaceful marches. 'We need freedom, and we need help from outside,' said one monk in his 60s. 'The government is trying to close the mind of the people. But now we need to open our minds. We need more trade, and more visitors to help us.'

Rather than isolation, Myanmar needs carefully targeted investment that would empower the motorcycle-riding middle class to challenge the junta's monopoly on wealth and power. An increase of tourists from the 192,000 reported so far this year by Reuters - compared with the 13 million expected in Thailand - would help travel agents, hotel and restaurant workers and others outside the junta circle.

On a grander scale, key players like China, India, Russia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations need to form a united front to convince the junta of the benefits of joining Asia's economic boom by adopting a more palatable form of government. Any unilateral sanctions by one player would only push the junta closer to other players, and harm border towns hooked on trade.

Tokyo-based author and journalist Christopher Johnson has covered Myanmar since the 1988 protest movement, and lived in Yangon in 1996-97