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The town of Myawaddy, located in Kawkareik Township, Pa'an District, sits along the Burma border adjacent to the Thai town of Mae Sot. The two towns are divided by the Moei River which flows northward between them until it feeds into the larger Salween River. Decades ago, Myawaddy was briefly under the control of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). However, the town was lost to the Burma Army amidst heavy fighting, including bombing and strafing by Burma Army jets, in March 1974.

myawaddy-1While Myawaddy has long been an important trade point between Thailand and Burma, its population and economic role have grown significantly since the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge was built across the Moei River in 1997. This bridge also links the Asian Highway One (AH1) as it goes from Mae Sot to Myawaddy and then on to Kawkareik and Thaton towns, Rangoon and beyond.

As economic activity and cross-border trade in the area (both official and unofficial) have grown, so too have the numbers of traders and workers coming and going from locations across Burma. Most traders and business people arriving in Myawaddy have come from Kawkareik, Pa'an and Thaton towns and Rangoon. Along with these groups of people, many local villagers—often fleeing military pressures, abuse and the financial, livelihoods and humanitarian impacts of abuse in rural areas—have also travelled to Myawaddy and neighbouring Thailand seeking economic refuge or simply opportunities to trade and work.

Commensurate with these economic and migratory developments, military-backed tollgates—each a local enterprise in (often entrepreneurial) extortion—have proliferated. These tollgates are manned by various combinations of Burma Army soldiers, State officials, police, Na Sa Ka,Democratic Karen Buddhist Karen Army (DKBA) soldiers and Karen Peace Force(KPF) soldiers. The conditions for the DKBA's transformation into a Border Guard Force, under at-least partial Burma Army control, reportedly include the freedom to continue, and possibly expand, business ventures like check-points.As such, these toll gates are likely to remain in place well past the planned 2010 election and related Border Guard Force transformation. This report, therefore, attempts to trace some of these 'enterprises in extortion' along one short stretch of the Asian Highway: from the edge of the Moei River at Myawaddy to the Sitaung River near Pegu (Bago) Division.

A string of toll gates

Beginning at the Moei River, there are two ways by which people can cross the Thailand-Burma border. The first of these is the formal crossing point over the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge. This checkpoint requires formal immigration procedures and customs checks by Burmese and Thai immigration officials on their respective sides. On the Burma side of the crossing, there is a 1,000 Burmese kyat (approx. US $0.92)fee for Burmese nationals to leave the country and a 500 Thai baht (US $14.88) fee for non-Burmese nationals to enter.

myawaddy-2 The second, and far more popular, manner of border crossing is to go 'under the bridge'—that is, taking a long-tail motor boat or rubber inner tube across the Moei River. For this service, there is a 500 kyat (approx. US $0.46) fee for transiting by either a boat or inner tube. On the Burma side, those coming to and from Thailand must pass through checkpoints overseen by a mix of Na Sa Ka, police, Burma Army and DKBA soldiers. To pass these checkpoints, travellers must pay a 500 kyat toll and another 500 kyat for excess baggage. There are five such tollgates at river crossing points along the Moei River in the Myawaddy area, but more can be found further up and downstream.

During the hot season (roughly February to May) it is actually possible to wade across the Moei River in places. However, SPDC and DKBA forces operating along the waters edge do not allow people to cross in this way; those who do cross must take a boat or inner tube and pay the requisite fees. Although costs for going 'under the bridge' are at least equal to those charged at the 'official' border crossing (or even more expensive for those with excess baggage), the 'unofficial' crossing points remain more popular—the advantage being that paperwork and customs checks are not conducted. The checkpoints along the river are thus best understood as tollgates, not immigration checkpoints. These routes are therefore particularly advantageous for migrant workers from Burma who lack legal travel documentation for Thailand yet who may cross back and forth as often as every day.

For more infomation about our jouney to Myawaddy, see our traveloque and our photos.