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Myanmar and Thailand Talk Big, Deliver Little

Beginning in August, Thai and Myanmar citizens will be able to travel “visa free(ly)” between their two countries, thanks to a mutual agreement signed this week by the Foreign Ministers of each nation.

The agreement puts into effect a visa waiver, a policy already widely adopted for citizens of most ASEAN nations, with hopes to increase commerce between neighboring nations.

However, this visa waiver does have its limitations, as it is 1) valid only to those traveling 14 days or less, and 2) applies only to those traveling through international airports—the vast majority of flights going between three of Thailand’s hubs (Suvarnabhumi, Don Mueang and Chiang Mai airports) and Myanmar’s Yangon and Mandalay International Airports.

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With the numerous border checkpoints which both tourists and traders use to cross, it might seem that a limited amount of people would benefit from the visa waiver targeting air travelers. This is especially true considering those whose business relies on vehicles to continually transport goods and resources across borders. There are reports of the visa waiver being extended to four of the busiest Thai-Myanmar border checkpoints but this is unconfirmed as of now.

Upon signing the new visa agreement, Thailand’s Foreign Affairs Minister Thanasak Patimakorn commented, “This reflects concrete cooperation between two countries and the agreement will promote tourism, trade, and other economic cooperation. But only air travel is allowed in the initial stage.”

As the two countries are actively promoting trade, additional focus should be given to ongoing concerns at border crossings—especially as the two countries have stated goals of increasing bilateral trade to US$12 billion by 2017, with an emphasis on “border areas.”

One such border crossing is fairly new and connects Myanmar’s Taninthayi region to the Prachuap Khiri Khan Province of Thailand, located part way down the Malay Peninsula (approximately 230 km (140 mi) south of Bangkok).

The Nation reports that numerous Myanmar traders have complained of difficulties with entry at the border gates, claiming bribery or other restrictions when they attempt to cross. “The Myanmar customs department issues official licenses and documents for trade, but the security forces at the Mawtaung gate still check the goods. They let us pass through only when we give them money, and the situation repeats at the Thai gate,” said one merchant from Myanmar.

Upgrades at these crossings were completed relatively recently in an attempt to encourage and improve local commerce. Myanmar opened their side of the Mawtaung/Singkhon border crossing in 2013 and Thailand’s existing Singkhon border crossing was improved this year, including upgrades to nearby roads, in anticipation of heavier traffic. While certainly moves in the right direction, it seems a crackdown on local corruption is what’s really needed if people within the region are to truly benefit from any increase in cross-border commerce.

There has been more talk of widespread visa waivers and standardization of inspection rules at certain border checkpoints. Such things would apply to Thailand and Myanmar as well as Laos and Vietnam, as these four nations lie within the East–West Economic Corridor.

Still, with token visa waivers restricted to those traveling on commercial flights, plus border crossing bottlenecks, how ready are these nations to unify in practice? This question becomes more imperative with the pending launch of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) just around the corner.

H/T: Bangkok Post