KNU Peace Puts Thai Border Trade on Alert

A Karen shopkeeper in Mae Sam Laep shows a poster of Burmese independence hero Aung San and his daughter, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. (Photo: Saw Yan Naing / The Irrawaddy)

MAE SARIANG, northern Thailand—Driving from the tiny town of Mae Sariang in Mae Hong Son Province, northern Thailand, to a small Thai-Burmese frontier trading point called Mae Sam Leap, construction workers pepper the route.

My driver reveals that the Thai authorities are planning another land connection between Mae Sariang and the hill-tribe village of Ban Tha Ta Fang where businessmen and local ethnic merchants are hoping for booming border trade in future years.

Mae Sariang hosts a small Thai community, but the majority of residents are ethnic Karen. While traveling between these towns and villages, local people, merchants and Thai businessmen all have huge expectations for Burma’s emerging reforms—especially the ceasefire between the government and rebel Karen National Union (KNU).

Inhabitants say that if the peace deal remains, business projects will certainly follow. A growing number of Thai businessmen from Mae Sot, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have arrived to check on the situation and intend to invest in border trade.

Ban Tha Ta Fang village is located on the banks of Salween River across from Burma’s Karen State where government troops are deployed.

The Thai authorities plan to build a bridge over the iconic waterway from there to Dakwin region on the Burmese side in order to boost trade, said Tipua, the deputy village headman of Ban Tha Ta Fang.

Dakwin is where an old road reaching Papun Town in northern Karen State was built by the British during the colonial era. This decrepit route can be rebuilt once the Karen rebels finalize the peace plan with Naypyidaw, said Tipua.

He added that if the bridge construction plans comes to fruition, the road is the shortest geographical overland route from Thailand to the Burmese capital or the main commercial city of Rangoon, especially compared to other principle Thai-Burmese border trading points such as Mae Sot-Myawaddy, Mae Sai-Tachileik or Ranong-Kawthaung.

The distance between Dakwin to Naypyidaw or Rangoon is expected to take between one and two hours by car once construction is complete.

Tipua said land prices in Ban Tha Ta Fang are already increasing. A plot that now costs 50,000 baht could be double or triple that amount in the next few years, he predicted. Thai and local businessmen nearby the villages are also rushing to purchase land and houses for future business premises, added Tipua.

Currently, centered in Mae Sam Laep, Thai goods are traded into Burma while cows, buffalos, antimony, tin and other raw stones are imported into Thailand by boat. However, gold mining and logging are banned by the KNU despite the rebels being approached by Thai firms and individual traders.

Villages such as Ban Tha Ta Fang and Ban Mae Sam Laep are under consideration by the Thai authorities for expansion into the popular nearby tourist trail—joining the backpacker enclaves of Mae Hong Son and Pai.

Tipua expects resorts to be built in Ban Tha Ta Fan after the peace deal is smoothed out as Thailand’s booming travel industry could see the entire Mae Hong Son Province expand to his village.

Hardly accessible in the rainy season, this remote part of the country only sees a smattering of Thai and western tourists during the summer. The villages are famous for home-made longtail boat trips for visitors to experience a scenic stretch of the mighty Salween River.

Before the Karen breakaway rebel group the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) split from its mother KNU in 1995, the exchange of goods in Mae Sam Laep was robust.

But business along the Salween River drastically drained away due to clashes between the rival Karen armies. Trade, however, has picked up again in recent years despite sporadic clashes. And again, early this year, when the KNU reached a ceasefire with the government, the economic potential began to excite inhabitants once more.

“Once the peace project is finished, booming border trade is expected to come, followed by an influx of individual Thai businessmen and skyrocketing land prices,” said Arirat, a local businesswoman who runs a shop in Mae Sam Laep.

“If the peace program fails, however, these expectations will return to a standstill,” she added.


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