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Border Trade - general

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Title: The Role of Informal Cross-border Trade in Myanmar
Date of publication: September 2009
Description/subject: Executive Summary: "In a country where there are constraints in formal practices, informal activities normally arise. Informal practices are not necessarily illegal and bad, however some of them tend to occupy a grey area and/or are illegal in accordance with local regulations. There are costs and benefits in minimizing these informal practices in a country. While constraints and restrictions still exist in the formal economy, any attempt to crush informal practices may realize more costs than benefits. Reduction of these constraints and restrictions in the formal economy may gradually erase informal practices in most cases. In Myanmar, informal practices in trade have been in existence for quite some time. The main purpose is not necessarily tax evasion, although the tax levied on exports (i.e. 10 per cent on the total export value) is considerably high. There are a number of reasons for involvement in informal practices and these include, among others: to avoid the lengthy licensing process to import products without having earnings from exports to import/export products that are restricted on a temporary or permanent basis to evade tax Since economic sanctions were first imposed by the West in 1997, and further stiffened in 2003 and 2007, cross-border trade has become more significant due to the fact that direct imports from and direct exports to the West have become much more difficult. As a result, Myanmar has relied more on its neighboring countries of China, Thailand, and India, to where most products are exported for consumption and also for re-export to the West. It is noted that the value of Myanmar’s exports to China, Thailand, and India accounts for 66 per cent of its total value of exports in 2007–08. In6 Winston Set Aung come generated from cross-border trade has also become one of the major sources of income for Myanmar, while income from other economic sectors such as foreign direct investment and tourism has diminished due to various factors that include economic sanctions. Since cross-border trade has become significant, trade through the border points with neighboring countries, especially China and Thailand, has become more active. While natural gas, timber, and agricultural products are the major commodities for cross-border trade with China, Thailand, and India, the most common commodities flowing both formally and informally through border points (especially with China and Thailand) are timber, gemstones, fishery products, electronics, agro-industrial products, and clothing. Some timber, gemstone, and fossil products are not authorized for export yet still flow through various unofficial border channels. These products are also exported through formal channels by sea or by air freight with licenses issued by the Ministry of Commerce following approval by ministries such as the Ministry of Forestry and the Ministry of Mines. Hence commodities fall into both formal and informal categories of cross-border trade. Although the value of border trade (according to official statistics) accounts for only 7 per cent of Myanmar’s total trade value, the actual value of border trade is likely to be much higher due to the value of undocumented trade that flows through borders, which reached over US$1 billion in 2006. If this undocumented trade were to be included in official statistics, the value of border trade would have accounted for around 25 per cent of Myanmar’s total value of trade in 2006. Although cross-border trade plays an important role in Myanmar’s economy, there are still various constraints such as an export-first policy, licensing system, and high tax related to exports in conducting formal trade. This has led to a situation where informal practices have expanded drastically, especially in border areas. Brokers have become more systematic by incorporating trading companies and specializing in several sets of products. Licenses for exports and imports are issued by the border trade authorities under the Ministry of Commerce, whereas broker trading companies apply for such licenses in advance for imports/exports of their specialized products. As a result, individuals or companies wanting to imThe Role of Informal Cross-border Trade in Myanmar 7 port/export can do so by purchasing the license acquired in advance by broker trading companies, or on their behalf at a fee (that includes a documentation fee) that varies depending on the market situation and seasonality. Through these practices, trade turnovers have increased, trade facilitation has improved tremendously, and job opportunities have opened up for more locals in border areas. In addition to broker trading companies, there is another type of informal player that is normally called a “carrier.” These carriers are individuals who carry undocumented products, both legal and illegal, across borders and bypass all customs check-points within Myanmar until they reach their destinations. Although this type of activity seems to be a petty trade, the value and volume of such trade carried out by a considerable number of carriers could be high. These carriers mostly work under or together with broker trading companies. These informal players are local people from around the border areas (especially in the case of Kawthaung, which borders Ranong, Thailand) although a majority of them have migrated internally from city areas such as Yangon or Mandalay (especially in the case of Muse bordering Ruili, China, and in the case of Myawaddy bordering Maesod, Thailand). In the case of Muse, some operators of broker trading companies are related to those in Jiegao across the border, whereas the relationship of a majority of operators in Ranong (in the case of Kawthaung) is just that of a business partnership without having a formal contractual relationship. The increased flow of border trade both through formal and informal channels tends to have a positive effect on people around the border points. Interviews conducted in 2007 revealed that income levels amongst young men (under 21) have increased in line with improved formal and informal border trading operations. The chances of male respondents in the younger age category possessing increased incomes due to improved formal and informal border trade are high. Surveys and focus group discussions also highlighted that people around the borders have a positive view of increased border trade both through formal and informal channels and disagree with constraints, restrictions, and trade related policies that can be changed abruptly at any time. 8 Winston Set Aung The facilitating role of informal players is quite important in border areas, and any attempt to eliminate them could have an adverse effect on cross-border trade and people living around the borders. Existing trade policies should be tilted to incorporate measures favorable to the poor, so that border trade can not only contribute to economic development but also to poverty alleviation, opening up more opportunities for the ethnic minorities and disadvantaged in the border areas."
Author/creator: Winston Set Aung
Language: English
Source/publisher: Institute for Security and Development Policy (Sweden)
Format/size: pdf (1.15MB)
Date of entry/update: 19 February 2010