Trade through Myawaddy plummets amid fighting near Thai-Myanmar border

The value of trade through the border town has fallen by more than 40 percent, mostly due to clashes that began late last year

Trade through the eastern Karen State border town of Myawaddy has fallen dramatically over the past year due to clashes in neighbouring Kawkareik Township, according to official figures from the Myanmar junta’s ministry of commerce.

The value of trade through Myawaddy between April 2023 and February 2024 plunged by more than 40 percent compared to the same period in the previous year, from US$1.87 billion to $1.085 billion, the ministry’s figures show.

Myawaddy is the largest of six official border crossings on the Thai-Myanmar border, and also the one most affected by the ongoing conflict between the military and anti-regime forces.

Most of the decline in trade through Myawaddy has occurred since early December of last year, when the Karen National Union (KNU) and its allies began attacking junta targets in Kawkareik. The town, located on the Asian Highway linking Yangon to the Thai capital Bangkok, is just 27 miles west of Myawaddy.

Earlier this year, the junta began authorising alternatives routes to the Thai border that pass through territory partly controlled by the KNU and other armed groups, including a Border Guard Force (BGF) that has recently cut ties with Myanmar’s military.

At present, almost all trade through Myawaddy licensed by the commerce ministry has come to a standstill, according to a trader based in the town.

“People engaged in legal border trade are now out of work, because the Myawaddy trade zone has been temporarily closed,” he said.

However, unofficial trade continues through the more circuitous Myawaddy-Thoekokoe route that bypasses Kawkareik, he added.

KNU troops seen in 2019 taking part in a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the group’s founding (KNU)

According to Khin Maung Myint, Karen State’s junta-appointed minister for economic affairs, trade along the main route is unlikely to resume anytime soon due to ongoing clashes and damage to a bridge just outside of Kawkareik on the Asian Highway.

“Traders now have to use the forest route on the unpaved road [through Thoekokoe]. But large trucks with more than six wheels can’t use this dirt road, so the amount of trade has significantly decreased,” he told Myanmar Now.

He added, however, that there were plans to pave part of the Thoekokoe road to make it useable even during the rainy season.

Additionally, he said that the Karen BGF has negotiated with various armed groups in the area to repair the bridge on the Asian Highway, which had been damaged by mines.

Padoh Saw Taw Nee, the spokesperson for the KNU, was unavailable for comment on the current border trade situation.

Since seizing power more than three years ago, Myanmar’s military has largely lost control of border areas around the country, resulting in severe disruptions of cross-border trade with neighbouring Thailand, China, India, and Bangladesh.

The greatest impact has been along the border between northern Shan State and China, where trade has yet to resume at major crossings despite a ceasefire between the military and an ethnic alliance that launched a large-scale offensive there late last year.

Trade has also been suspended along the border with Bangladesh as the Arakan Army (AA), a member of the Brotherhood Alliance responsible for the military’s heavy losses in northern Shan State, continues to fight for control of Rakhine State.

AA spokesperson Khaing Thukha said the group, which now controls much of the northern part of the state, plans to reopen border trade, but has yet to work out the details.

“We want to have good relations with our neighbours and work together on projects that will be of interest to citizens of both countries. We are prepared for full cooperation,” he said.

Border trade with India is also suspended due to intense fighting in Sagaing Region and Chin State.

According to official figures, the total value of Myanmar’s border trade from the start of the 2023-24 fiscal year until the end of February was just over $7 billion.

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