RANGOON — As of Wednesday, foreign visitors with Burmese visas are allowed to enter and leave Burma overland through four gates along its eastern border with Thailand.
Officials and ethnic representatives said the decision would boost the tourism industry and facilitate foreign investment in ethnic areas and the rest of Burma.
The decision to open up international road travel ends decades-long restrictions introduced by Burma’s previous military government, which was wary of foreign visitors and wanted to limit access to the conflict-ridden ethnic areas along the border.
Foreign nationals can now enter and exit Burma at Tachileik-Mae Sai and Myawaddy-Mae Sot border gates, at the recently-opened crossing Htee Khee-Sunaron and through the Kawthaung-Ranong gate, located at Burma’s most southern point, the Ministry of Immigration and Population announced on Tuesday.
Travelers passing through these gates are allowed to leave via international airports in Rangoon, Naypyidaw and Mandalay, the ministry said, adding that visa on arrival is not available at the border gates.
Minister of Hotels and Tourism Htay Aung reportedly attended an official ceremony at Myawaddy-Mae Sot border crossing on Wednesday to mark its opening for foreign visitors.
The decision is the result of a bilateral agreement between the Burmese and Thai governments, the Tourism Ministry said. Prior to the agreement, visitors were only allowed to travel to Burma by air. One-day visits were possible at three gates, while foreigners could also gain permission to travel for one week in Burma’s Shan State, if they stayed in the vicinity of Tachileik.
Hla Maung Shwe, a presidential advisor at the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center, said the decision was made possible by the progress in Burma’s peace process.
“This opening of the border crossings is the fruit of the peace process that we are working on in our country,” he told The Irrawaddy. “Those who enter the country through these gates, they can go out again at any other gate. There are no restrictions,” he said, adding that the move would help boost tourist visits to areas that were hard to reach before and support local livelihoods in ethnic regions.
More than a dozen armed ethnic groups have been fighting decades-long rebellions against Burma’s central government in the mountainous, forested border regions, in order to gain political autonomy and respect for basic human rights.
President Thein Sein’s nominally-civilian, reformist government has reached ceasefire agreements with most groups in the past year and peace talks are ongoing.
Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan groups in ethnic areas along Burma’s eastern border with Thailand were left impoverished by conflict and isolation. Some ethnic leaders and businesses there said they hoped their region would now benefit economically from an increase in overland tourist and business travelers.
New Mon State Party executive committee member Nai Tala Nyi said the opening of the Myawaddy-Mae Sot crossing to international visitors could boost tourist business in the Mon State capital Moulmein, which is located on one the main roads leading to Rangoon from the border gate.
“It is good for all people that they can travel from the border to here [Moulmein]. I hope it will have good impact for the local people,” he said.
“I feel our Mon people will get similar benefits to the Thai people, who gain good income from tourism industry, if more visitors come to our Mon State,” said Kaung Sein, managing director at Mon Thanakorn Company.
The relaxing of overland travel restrictions would also help the growing number of Thai firms coming to Burma, according to Kaung Sein, whose Moulmein-based firm assists Thai businesses looking to invest in the Daiwei deep-sea port and industrial zone in Mon State.
“As the border opens, there will be more foreign investment,” he said, Then, our migrants workers who are in Thailand, they can come back to work in their own land.”