Rakhine Border Trade Running Again, Says Commerce Chairman

By Moe Myint 26 October 2017

YANGON — Border trade in northern Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township has resumed, as the region has stabilized, according to the Maungdaw Border Trade Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber’s chairman U Aung Myint Thein said trade stopped when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) staged an early morning offensive on 30 police outposts in the district on August 25 although authorities did not officially announce the suspension of trade between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

In response, the Myanmar Army launched clearance operations against ARSA in the region that forced at least 600,000 Muslims to flee for Bangladesh. International rights groups and Muslim villagers accused members of the security forces of committing arson, killings and rape.

The violence halted to the Bangladesh border many exports such as ginger roots, dried fish and rice. Arakanese businessman U Aung Thein said the majority of traders’ goods, including his own, perished in storage over the past two months.

U Aung Thein planned to export nearly 20 boats filled with ginger roots to Bangladesh before conflict in Maungdaw erupted in August.

“The fresh ginger is already dry as we have kept it for a couple months and [a recent Islamic festival] is over now,” said U Aung Thein.

While the demand for fresh ginger is low, said U Aung Thein, demand for rice and dried fish is very high because of the sheer number of self-identifying Rohingya refugees—known locally as “Bengali” by many—sheltering in Bangladesh’s Teknaf district.

U Aung Thein explained that a 50-kilogram bag of low-grade rice bag costs about 25,000 kyats in Maungdaw and about 32,000 kyats in a Bangladeshi market.

Muslim trader U Anowar, owner of Shwe Mya Ratanar Enterprise, who lives in downtown Maungdaw told The Irrawaddy over the phone on Thursday that the situation there has calmed and some businesspeople began trading again in mid-October. However, he said, most of the Muslim merchants have hesitated to do business, including himself, from fear of them or their families becoming a casualty in the troubles.

“People are worrying about conflict as much unverified information is circulating in the community. So they just briefly go shopping and then return home,” he said.

Authorities have allowed shops—many run by Muslims—to open in municipal markets, he said, but only a handful of people sell goods for a couple of hours in the morning and shops close before the afternoon. The city’s roads are not crowded in the daytime like they were before the conflict, he said, adding, “not many people go outside.”

According to sources, security in downtown Maungdaw has tightened and more police checkpoints between Muslim and Arakanese quarters and village entrances have been deployed. Security forces ask people trying to enter downtown for national verification cards or official documents and check every package being brought in.

The Irrawaddy contacted the commerce office in Maungdaw to gauge the volume of border trade but there was no answer on Thursday.

Rakhine State government has been developing on the outskirts of Maungdaw the Kanyin Chaung border trade zone, a project estimated to cost about 2 billion kyats (US$1.5 million) altogether.

The project was begun under the Thein Sein administration and Rakhine State chief minister Nyi Pu, who was appointed by the National League for Democracy government, has earmarked 1.5 billions kyats of its 2017-18 fiscal year budget in order to complete construction.

According to government statistics, three foreign companies and 136 local companies are operating in the Maungdaw area, where trade this year is expected to reach US$6 million, with $5 million already reached by September.