Burma’s Border Trade Booms in 2013-14

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 9 April 2014

RANGOON — Trade across Burma’s land borders grew by more than a fifth last year, with goods being traded to and from China making up the majority of the trade, an official said.

Than Aung Kyaw, director of the Ministry of Commerce told The Irrawaddy that a massive 83 percent of the trade was across the border with China in the 2013-14 fiscal year. Burma also shares land borders with Bangladesh, India, Laos and Thailand.

Total imports and exports across all borders reached US$4.46 billion from April 2013 to March 2014, compared with $3.7 billion of trade in the previous year, he said.

The only official trade crossing on the Chinese-Burmese border is Muse in Shan State, opposite Ruili in China’s Yunnan Province.  Than Aung Kyaw said Burma was importing large quantities of Chinese-made home appliances, foodstuffs, electronics and construction materials.

“As long as Burmese people rely on cheap Chinese products, the border trading volume with China will keep increasing,” Than Aung Kyaw said.

According to figures provided by Than Aung Kyaw, exports made up $2.70 billion of the trade through Muse, while imports volume hit $1.76 billion. However, Than Aung Kyaw did not say what the large volume of official exports from Burma was made up of.

The figure likely does not include timber exports—which were thought to flow across the Chinese border despite being permitted only through Rangoon’s port, until a full ban on log exports came into force this month. It could include some of the lucrative trade in jade from Kachin State and other gems, although the scale of the illegal border trade is thought to be considerable.

Burma also exports rice, beans and pulses, rubber, marine products, natural gas and oil, and garments to its neighbors and internationally.

Trade through the Muse-Ruili border overshadows the rest of Burma’s border trade. There are four official crossings on the Burmese-Thai border, but trade through the largest crossing point, Myawaddy-Mae Sot, was worth just $290 million in 2013-14.

“Thai products are still more expensive than Chinese products. If people’s consumer power gets higher Thailand border trade volume will increase than China,” said Than Aung Kyaw, implying that Thai products, though more expensive, are preferred for their apparent higher quality.

Only $50 million of the trade through Myawaddy-Mae Sot was exports from Burma to Thailand—mainly marine products. Foodstuffs, home appliances, construction materials, automobile spare parts and agricultural equipment are all imported to Burma from Thailand.

Crossings on Burma’s western borders see far less official trade. A crossing in Maungdaw Township, Arakan State, has been closed to traders since violence broke out between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the state in mid-2012.

“Though there is a border station in Maungdaw, trading has stopped,” Than Aung Kyaw said. “On the Indian border, at Tamue in Chin State, there is also very little trading.”

Border trade makes up just 19 percent of Burma’s total international trade, which was worth more than $21.33 billion last year. However, the proportion of trade coming across the borders, rather than by sea, has increased in recent years.

Than Aung Kyaw said in 2009-10, maritime trade made up 88 percent of Burma’s total trade, then worth just $11.7 billion.

“[In 2013-14], the border trade volume reached 19 percent while normal trade volume was 81 percent, so border trade is increasing,” Than Aung Kyaw said.