RANGOON — Mobile government teams tasked with curbing smuggling along the Burma-China border near Muse have seized illicit goods, including gemstones, timber, wildlife and precursor drugs, with an estimated total value of US$27 million in the past two years, according to Ministry of Commerce officials.
Yan Naing Tun, deputy director general of the ministry’s commerce and consumer affairs department, said mobile teams had set up checkpoints and conducted surprise checks on the road to the Muse-Jiegao border crossing and other known smuggling routes in northern Shan State to seize unregistered goods on cargo trucks on their way to and from the Burma-China border.
“Smuggled jade and jewels are the largest number [of goods] that we have seized in the past two years. These are going to China via Muse border areas, but smugglers weren’t going through the border check points, they used other ways around the check points,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Yan Naing Tun said 600 officials had formed several teams—comprising officials from the ministry, the Customs Department and police officers—that seized smuggled jade and rubies worth $3.8 million.
He said illegal timber, forest products and wildlife was also being smuggled out of Burma on a large scale, with officials seizing various kinds of hardwood and luxury timber. Goods smuggled from China into Burma included textiles, tobacco, alcohol, electrical appliances such as mobile handsets, and precursor chemicals used in illegal drug production in Shan State.
“More than 10,000 logs of various kinds of timber have been seized within two years,” said Yan Naing Tun, adding that 11,000 kilograms of precursor chemicals were confiscated on their way from China into Burma. Seized goods were later auctioned by the ministries involved in the anti-smuggling operations.
He added that the mobile teams inspected cargo on trucks while police teams conducted the search for illicit drugs, such as opium, heroin and methamphetamine, being trafficked from Burma to China.
Muse is Burma’s largest border crossing and its main gateway to China. Some 900 trucks cross into China daily, while around 500 trucks head in the other direction. There are another five crossings on the Burma-Thailand border, most important among them Myawaddy-Mae Sot crossing, but the government anti-smuggling teams have yet to step up operations there.
Recently, mobile teams expanded their operations to international airports and ports in Rangoon and Mandalay.
A Drop in the Bucket?
President Thein Sein’s nominally-civilian government launched a drive to crackdown on smuggling along Burma’s northern border in November 2012 in an attempt to reign in unregistered trade, which blossomed under the former-military regime. It is unclear how much of an impact the operations are having on the large-scale trade, while Chinese border authorities have been reluctant to crackdown on the inflow of illegal goods from Burma.
Jade has long been smuggled into China and the trade in Burma’s most valuable natural resource, estimated to be worth between $6-9 billion per annum, leaves the country mostly untaxed and unregistered. Similarly, the forests of northern Burma are being raided by illegal loggers who smuggle enormous amounts of timber into China. The UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency estimated that timber worth $5.7 billion was smuggled out of Burma into China from 2000 to 2013.
Ongoing ethnic conflict has destabilized the Burma-China border in Kachin State, while the trade through unruly northern Shan State has also been difficult to regulate. Endemic corruption among authorities continues to hamper efforts to reduce smuggling, as has the willingness among smuggling rings to use violence against officials enforcing laws.
Last month, four Forestry Department officials were shot dead and two were injured in southern Shan State when illegal loggers ambushed their vehicle in retaliation for the seizure of illegal timber.
Win Myo Thu, managing director of Ecodev, an environmental NGO based in Rangoon, said the government has yet to come up with a comprehensive plan to reduce rampant illegal logging on the ground and stem the lucrative trade and smuggling of timber.
“Rule of law is important and to take action, but it is difficult to stop timber smuggling without improving the rules and regulations for timber export,” he said, adding that, despite government measures, timber trade was thriving and an estimated 100,000 cubic meters of timber was imported by China from Burma last year.
“Smuggled timber will keep going to neighboring countries, whatever checks they do, because there will be smugglers who want to be rich and some do it to survive poor conditions, while some armed force group will do it to gather funds,” he said.