Over and Under the Thai-Burma ‘Friendship Bridge’

Lawi Weng The Irrawaddy

MYAWADDY, Burma — In this town on the Thai-Burma border, thousands of job seekers make a 10-minute crossing every day over the “Friendship Bridge” to the northern Thai town of Mae Sot or elsewhere in Thailand, where they will join an estimated 2 million Burmese migrant workers.

In Myawaddy, the second-largest border zone in Burma, cars from other cities such as Moulmein, Pa-an or Rangoon sit parked near the bridge, after dropping off a group of job seekers or waiting to meet returning workers on their way back from Thailand.

Some of the returning workers carry Thai goods for delivery in other Burmese townships. The products are in high demand, with about 50 million baht (US $1.65 million) in trade exported from Thailand over the border every month, both legally and illegally, according to the Thai government.

The one-lane road between Thailand and Myawaddy continues to other townships in Burma via a dangerous mountain route.

More than 500 cars make the bumpy cross-border journey every day, with passengers thrown about in overcrowded buses on their way into and out of Thailand. When a bus or car engine dies, they wait for hours, sometimes sleeping on the road until the problem is fixed and they can continue.

In Myawaddy, which benefits from 24-hour electricity from Thailand, drivers call out into the streets for passengers to come quickly before they depart. However, most of the buses do not leave on time, as drivers wait to fill every seat before hitting the road.

A bus ticket might cost 5,000 kyat ($6) or 10,000 kyat for a higher-class car, though standards or class are questionable. Some drivers offer misleading promises of air-conditioning but then simply open the windows—“natural air-conditioning”—when it comes time to leave.

Some travelers opt to ride by boat, crossing the border on the Moei River under the bridge for the price of 1,000 kyat.

Others walk under the bridge on a path, the illegal road to Mae Sot. Rather than paying a border fee to Burmese authorities on the bridge, these illegal crossers pay a bribe of 1,000 kyat to guards from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which signed a ceasefire with the government last year.

At least 20 illegal border points are under the control of ethnic Karen armed groups and the Karen Border Guard Force, which was part of the DKBA before splitting away.

Despite the high volume of trade between Myawaddy and Mae Sot, the border point has no fence to stop the illegal crossings.