Thousands of Myanmar textile workers on the Thai-Myanmar border in Three Pagodas Pass, Karen State have been unable to go to work at factories in Thailand due to a dispute between the countries’ border authorities.
“For the workers, they do not have monthly salaries, so how can they survive?” asked U Tin Myo Oo, a National League for Democracy regional lawmaker who represents Kyainseikgyi Township, where Three Pagodas Pass is located.
“[Myanmar authorities] do not allow workers to cross the border at the moment. From the Myanmar side, they do not allow people to cross the border, as I heard,” he said.
The Irrawaddy could not reach the Myanmar Border Committee in Three Pagodas Pass for comment.
Local sources from the town told The Irrawaddy that the dispute began on Tuesday after a meeting between Thai border authorities and a Karen Border Guard Force (BGF).
Thai authorities have objected to the fact that the Karen BGF allows some trade to pass through the border gates under their control, including reportedly at night. The border has been closed to trade since 2007 but border authorities from both sides allow locals to walk across to go to work for the day. Local traders are also allowed to cross, some driving their cars to transport food.
The BGF has recently opened a couple additional border points and the Thai border authorities have voiced concerns about trafficking of illegal drugs, especially amphetamines, into Thailand.
The BGF has also built a Christian church on land that the Thai authorities say they belongs to Thailand.
“We heard that the BGF built a church where the Thais say the building encroaches on their land,” said Nai Banya Aung Moe, a resident in the town and a former lawmaker for an ethnic Mon party.
When the dispute began on Tuesday, the Thai border authorities closed their side of the border but reopened it later that day. The Myanmar border authorities didn’t close their side of the border until Wednesday, according to residents.
Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, spokesperson for the Myanmar army, told The Irrawaddy that he could not say exactly what was happening on the border, but that the current tensions there have nothing to do with the Myanmar army or the Thai army.
At least 5,000 Myanmar migrant workers live in the town at Three Pagodas Pass, crossing over to work at factories on the Thai side in the morning and walking back in the evening.
There are also over 100 children from Myanmar crossing the border daily to study at schools on the Thai side.
On Friday, the students’ parents got permission from the Myanmar border authorities for the students to cross the border.
“They open the border for the students this morning but they did not allow other residents to cross,” said Nai Banya Aung Moe.
Some migrant workers are preparing to protest against the actions of the Myanmar border authorities.
Without workers, textile factories on the Thai side have been unable to run.
Some local residents said the Myanmar border authorities are blocking workers from crossing as a tactic to pressure the Thai government into intervening to solve the border dispute issues.
The end of border trade?
Local residents say that a long-term border shutdown will impact the livelihoods of those in Three Pagodas Pass more than those on the Thai side, as most of the Thais are food sellers and can turn elsewhere to find buyers.
A weekly Friday market on the Thai side of the border saw very few customers this week, as the market primarily serves people from Three Pagodas Pass, including textile workers, who were unable to cross.
Thai food vendors were forced to return with unsold food or sell it at cheaper price—where a kilogram of oranges normally sells for 40 baht (US$1.25), vendors were selling for 20 baht.
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