YANGON—Traders at Myanmar’s largest border crossing with China, in Shan State’s Muse,
are expecting border trade to take another serious blow following China’s decision to shut a crucial customs gate to curb the spread of COVID-19.
On Tuesday, authorities in Ruili, the town across the border from Muse in China’s Yunnan Province, imposed a lockdown and ordered that all residents be tested for COVID-19 after two Myanmar nationals tested positive there. Chinese officials also shut down Ruili’s customs clearance office, a crucial checkpoint for goods from Myanmar.
“Border trade has stopped completely. Since the customs gate is no longer in service, we can’t export any goods to China,” U Min Thein, vice chairman of the Muse Rice Wholesale Center, told The Irrawaddy.
“One hundred percent of business activities with China have halted here,” U Min Thein said.
Through Muse, Myanmar mainly exports rice, sugar, corn, onion, beans, chilies and seafood including shrimp, sea crab and eel, according to officials from the 105 Mile Trade Zone in the town.
Meanwhile, about 400 truckloads of export goods are stranded in Muse. Around 100 more truckloads of goods are stranded in China’s Jiegao—which lies between the border and Ruili—and traders are looking for warehouses to temporarily store the goods.
The total value of bilateral trade shipped through Muse is around 4.57 billion kyats (US$3.44 million) per day, according to the Ministry of Commerce. According to Ruili authorities, the shutdown period will last at least a week, depending on the residents’ test results.
“Border trade had already been hurting badly since March due to COVID-19. Although China has been allowing our trucks to enter in recent months, the process is extremely slow due to the [COVID-19] restrictions,” U Sai Htun Ko Ko, the secretary of the Muse-Namkham Chamber of Commerce, told The Irrawaddy.
“Now, again… we have to prepare for the worst. We can’t foresee what is going to happen. The situation depends on China,” he said.
Since late March, Myanmar and China’s border gates have been closed to people not involved in transporting goods, and trucks exporting goods have to follow COVID-19-related procedures. The impact of the strict COVID-19 prevention measures imposed by China, Myanmar’s largest trading partner, is mostly being felt by local traders, farmers, producers and workers.
According to the Ministry of Commerce, Myanmar exported $3.1 billion worth of goods to China last fiscal year.
The official data show that Myanmar’s exports through Muse to China dropped by about $140 million between Oct. 1, 2019 and Sept. 4 this year compared with the same period a year earlier. According to the ministry, from Oct. 1, 2018 to Sept. 4, 2019, Myanmar’s exports were worth $2.93 billion, while from Oct. 1, 2019 to Sept. 4 this year the total was $2.79 billion.
“Some goods can be stored in warehouses, but seafood can’t be stored for long. So, we will definitely face losses,” seafood exporter U Tun Thein told The Irrawaddy.
“We can’t complain, because it’s a public health issue. There’s nothing we can do—this is a pandemic. We just have to wait until [the border] opens,” he said.
Chinese state media reported that authorities in Ruili have imposed “wartime”-style anti-epidemic measures and ordered a crackdown on illegal border crossings. According to a Ruili government videoconference, the population screening started on Wednesday.
“It’s a health issue. We can’t ask them to reopen. [But] the longer it stays closed, the worse the damage to business will be,” said U Min Thein, the rice wholesale center vice chairman.
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