Concerns for Consumers after Disbanding of Anti-Smuggling Teams

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 5 January 2016

RANGOON — Observers have expressed concern over a potential uptick in illegal imports, including low-quality food and drugs, after Burma’s commerce ministry announced the disbanding of anti-smuggling teams last week.

On Dec. 30, the ministry announced that the government’s mobile task force teams, which aimed to clamp down on the country’s thriving illegal border trade, would be abolished.

Since late 2012, the cross-departmental teams, including representatives of the commerce ministry, customs and police, worked to intercept illegal overland trade, primarily in Shan State’s Muse on the border with China and in Myawaddy, Karen State, on the Thai-Burma border.

Min Ko Oo, secretary of the Myanmar Pulses, Beans and Sesame Seeds Merchants Association (MPBSSMA), said he was concerned that government efforts to enforce controls on illegal overland imports entering the local market may be weakened.

“For example, frozen meats and foods—most of it is coming from China. The government needs to monitor these foods for local consumers,” he said. “Fake drugs, low-quality foods and other consumer products should be checked seriously.”

“The government should take care of this issue beyond the mobile team,” he added.

Over the past three years, the over 600-member task force seized more than 50 billion kyats (US$38.2 million) worth of smuggled goods in border areas, according to the commerce ministry, including jade, timber, foods and electronics.

Economist Aung Ko Ko said that the commencement of the ASEAN Economic Community and the attendant lowering or abolishment of trade barriers may have influenced the government’s decision.

“When the mobile teams were stopped, they should have formed another controlling team [to safeguard] consumers’ rights. It will harm people if there is no action,” he said.

“A lot of low quality food and drugs are coming onto the local market. The government should not only take action after products have entered. There should be proper action to stop [illegal products] coming in.”

Former members of the mobile anti-smuggling units are now back in their previous roles, Soe Win, deputy director general of the commerce ministry, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.

“The customs department will keep working on their processes and other members are back in their workplaces,” he said. “There is nothing special to explain why these teams stopped working. They stopped because of a government order.”

The illegal trade in cheap food, medicine and other products has particularly flourished in Sino-Burma border areas.

“Traders can carry these products through border points… this is a national health issue,” Aung Ko Ko said.