Monthly Report: Protecting their rice pots: an economic profile of trade and corruption in Three Pagodas Pass

Protecting their rice pots: an economic profile of trade and corruption in Three Pagodas Pass
December 22, 2008
I. Introduction
Control of the Three Pagodas Pass border crossing, which connects Burma’s Karen State to Thailand’s Kanchanaburi Province, has been actively contested for hundreds of years. Fighting was fierce and frequent through the 1990s, and disputes over the border’s exact demarcations persist. In the last decade, frequent border closures driven by conflict and politics have wreaked havoc on legal business in and through the pass. Today, many residents find themselves in dire economic circumstances, made worse by the global economic crisis.
Download report as PDF

In spite of the border closures and economic troubles, the pass sees a consistent volume of cross-border trade. Much of this trade is illegal, both for its specific character and because the border remains officially closed. In nearly all cases, regime authorities, the military and armed ceasefire groups seek to profit from, and even participate in, border-based business activities. Everything is taxed, from the card games of truck drivers passing the time between loads to the hundreds of tons of illegally logged timber that enter the town every day. This should not be surprising, for government officials in Burma are among the most corrupt in the world. According to the latest ranking by the international corruption-monitoring group Transparency International, Burma’s corruption levels are second only to Somalia, a failed state with a barely functioning government.
This report seeks to document the mostly illegal border trade through Three Pagodas Pass, who profits from allowing it to proceed, and by how much. The first section presents a short background on the area and some of the key actors, as well as a detailed description of common trade routes and their attendant checkpoints. The next section is an economic profile, which provides details on the largest sectors of the border trade including timber, minerals, agricultural products and livestock, drugs, migrant labor and goods from Thailand. Information on gambling and prostitution in Three Pagodas Town is also included because, though the activities remain local, they are inextricably linked to the border trade and corruption of area officials. Finally, the report concludes with analysis of the human rights impacts of the cross border trade and related official corruption.
The information in the report is based upon 82 targeted interviews conducted by HURFOM during December, as well as the invaluable knowledge of a number of field reporters each with close to ten years experience living and researching in the area. It should be stressed, however, that the illegal nature of most of the activities in this report means the prices for taxes and fees are rarely based upon a consistent or codified government policy. They are, subsequently, highly variable and subject to modification based upon factors including the security situation, the relationship between the payer and authorities, and the relative economic appetites of particular officers and officials. In most cases, prices are presented as a range between the highest and lowest numbers documented by HURFOM. In cases where the amount quoted is related to either an estimate or a single incident or source, that source is referenced.

II. Background
A. Contested territory

The Thai-Burma border is over 2,000 kilometers long. Though the border is highly porous, it is also mountainous and home to only four official border crossings, which mark the easiest routes for trade between the countries. Three Pagodas Pass served as the crossing point for the armies of Mon and Burman kings for hundreds of years until British colonialism. During World War II, another invading army – this time Japanese – used it, and the area is still home to the defunct tracks of the infamous “death railway” linking the River Kwae in Kanchanaburi to Thanbyuzayat, near the Andaman Coast in Mon State. In modern history, armed ethnic insurgent groups, chiefly the Karen National Union (KNU) and the New Mon State Party (NMSP), controlled the crossing through the 1980s. The pass was a lucrative asset for the groups, for basic goods were in short supply due the failed “Burmese Way to Socialism” and smuggling was big business. Profits from the trade helped fund the anti-government insurgent efforts, but they also created tensions between ostensibly allied groups. In a tragically timed conflict in 1988, for 27 days in August the KNU and NMSP fought for control of the pass. Their timing coincided almost exactly with the “8-8-88 uprising,” and meant that two of Burma’s largest armed opposition groups shooting each other at virtually the same moment Burma’s military was shooting hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters. In February 1990, an offensive of 1,000 SPDC troops overran the pass.

read all

One thought on “Monthly Report: Protecting their rice pots: an economic profile of trade and corruption in Three Pagodas Pass

  1. Pingback: The mother-in-law of an armed Karen cease-fire group leader in Three Pagodas Pass has been released after a being kidnapped on Saturday. The leader’s wife is also unharmed after armed assailants fired on her as she escaped an earlier attempted kidnappin

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s