Centralized Covid-19 control added salt to wounded border lives

If the curfew in Bangkok during the lockdown period was tiresome enough, imagine being allowed to travel for only 3 days a week. The border shutdown ordered from the central authorities is needlessly affecting livelihoods in the north that are highly dependent on trans-border activities.

The Mekong river border at Chiang Saen district.

Mae Sam Lap, a small village bordering Myanmar on the Salween River in Mae Hong Son Province, has faced worrisome changes since the first wave of Covid-19 infections hit Thailand. The nationwide border shutdown has affected the temporary checkpoint in this port town.

Pongpipat Meebenjamas, a coordinator of the Salween villagers’ network and Salween Civil Society Organizations Network said the area is heavily affected as people mainly depend on the river for travel, trade and fishing. The situation seems to have improved as the local authorities informally allow people to travel one day a week, later increased to 3 days.

This relaxation took effect after Pongpipat, as the villager representative, made a complaint to the Member of Parliament, local administration, and media.

But a sudden outbreak of Covid-19 in Myanmar in August in Rakhine state is giving Mae Sam Lap people the bad feeling of a setback to a square one due to a 15-day border shutdown starting on 3 September, despite Rakhine state being on the other side of Myanmar.

What has happened in Mae Sam Lap is a small example of a huge hole in Thailand’s centralized disease control policy that succeeded in saving lives at the expense of huge economic losses.

Virus control at a dire cost to local trade

25 August was a very quiet day at the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge 4 in Chiang Khong District, Chiang Rai Province. The border lockdown prohibits this port town from trading across the Mekong River, leaving the bridge the only trading spot available. Despite being open for trade, no activity seemed to be taking place that day.

A quiet day at the Chiangkhong customs house, Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge 4

Chiang Rai is geographically significant for trans-border trade from its border that connects with both Myanmar and Laos. Beyond the Lao border, there is an economic corridor all the way to southern China via the R3A road.

Sa-nguan Sonklinsakul, Vice President of the Chiang Rai Chamber of Commerce, said trans-border trading accounts for 80-90% of the trade in Chiang Rai Province. The border lockdown affects traders in the province a lot, especially the small- and medium-size ones that conduct their trade with the locals across the river from port to port.

Sa-nguan Sonklinsakul

He said the small and medium traders used to conduct trade and logistics via the Mekong River to bypass the complex customs procedures at the official border checkpoint due to their small trading amounts. After the lockdown, traders adapted by bundling their goods together by car to the border, where the goods will be transferred to the other side.

Unfortunately, according to Sa-nguan, the Lao authorities at the Houayxay immigration post, Bokeo Province, decided to increase the customs tax by 100%, causing the traders to give up trading as they feared losses from the skyrocketing cost. He asked his friends who conduct trans-border trade and found no other immigration post has acted similarly.

The shrinking local trade benefits bigger Thai companies that benefit from Free Trade Agreements or other tax subsidies at the international level on trade which is mostly conducted at the Lao capital, Vientiane.

He said some of the entrepreneurs in Chiang Kong have petitioned the Provincial Governor to open up 2 small ports for local trade, but as of August no decision has been made as it has to be agreed by the Lao side as well.

Decentralized, systematic solutions needed

Sa-nguan said the policy should be made in consideration of local context. Small traders should be allowed to conduct trade via the river. Land transfers can also be made with health regulations from both sides to allow some people to pass through. He fears that mismanagement will lead to the loss of export market share as China and Vietnam are potential competitors in this region.

“Small traders like us ask only for opening the river route, then you can dock at our port and unload the goods. Lao people do not have to disembark. Both sides can communicate which goods they want and then bring a boat across to carry it.

“I think that alone should not lead to shutting down every border post and every route in every province … the small traders are dying, [but] the big ones can survive,” said Sa-nguan.  “But ask if the big traders are local.  They’re not.”

Pongpipat also holds the same opinion, that well-managed local measures can still handle the river traffic in Mae Sam Lap. He said the distance from Rakhine to Mae Sam Lap is very far and blocked by many ongoing conflicts.

He wants the authorities to allow domestic river trade and travel to be operated regularly. Any necessary public health measures like wearing face masks or temperature screening can be enforced to keep livelihoods going.

“Boats should be used for convenience in travel. Boats have to be docked anyway. Sop Moei and Mae Sai already have the security posts and health officials already. Just temperature screening or checking names to confirm that no one really did cross the border.” said Pongpipat.

Pol Maj Gen Supisarn Bhakdinarinath, an MP from Move Forward Party and Chair of House Sub-committee charged with studying, improving, amending security-related laws, said the border closures have affected local grassroots trading and contributed to lack of labour on both sides. Thousands of Thai people who work in the entertainment sector at Tachileik, one of the towns in Myanmar bordering Mae Sot, have already lost their jobs because of the closures.

Pol Maj Gen Supisarn Bhakdinarinath

He said the economy at the local level along the border is still not making a comeback. Despite infections on the Myanmar side, the government should allow authorized labour imports, with additional enforcement of public health measures. 

Supisarn gives an example: migrant workers would be screened by the authorities and put in quarantine. If no disease is found, they can be put to work in a limited area. If anybody has Covid-19, they will be segregated for treatment and others in the group will be put into complete quarantine.

The state and private sector should work together to check and report on the situation daily. Judging from past disease control capacity, Thailand already has the preparedness in terms of local public health human resources.

“Use the tools of the state such as the provincial and district public health officials, military and police for quarantine by bringing these workers to work in quarantined areas in each company and make work sites as in Singapore”, said Supisarn.

“In Singapore, infection spread among groups of workers, but they used the quarantine method. When they find someone, they pull them out and put them a quarantine area like a small island or community. If they cannot be treated, it deports them.

“14-days quarantine is the foundation that companies can be allowed by the state. But it is necessary to build competitive tools and have a comprehensive system of public health. This will make these workers enter legitimately. Smuggling or secretly entering across the natural border will not happen. Minivans won’t be discovered.  It will be dangerous if state officials along the border, especially the military, let them through. It means spreading all over an area in a way where we cannot trace the origin,” said Supisarn.

Supisarn said the military has replaced the border police for border protection and patrols since the 2014 coup. On Covid-19 security-related matters, they send their opinion to the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), a quasi-military civilian state organization, then to the regional army commander and to the National Security Council and to the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA).


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