Thailand approves border economic zone

Oct 8, 2009 (DVB), An announcement by the Thai government that is has approved the development of a Special Economic Zone along its border with Burma has received mixed reactions from a Burma economics expert.

The Thai cabinet on Tuesday approved a proposal from the Ministry of Commerce to develop the economic zone in Thailand's border town of Mae Sot, the Bangkok Post reported.

The town's proximity to Burma and its abundance of low-cost migrant Burmese labor makes the area a hub of economic activity for garment makers and other multinational corporations.

Once in place, border trade between the two countries could double, Thailand's deputy commerce minister, Alongkorn Ponlaboot, said. Observers worry however that development in the area is not necessarily a positive step.

"If investment took place on the Thai side, there is the issue of exploitation [of migrant workers], which is always there," said Sean Turnell, from the Australia-based Burma Economic Watch.

He warned that the problem is not simplistic, with high unemployment, corruption and economic inefficiencies in Burma offering little hope of economic gain for Burmese living in the country.

"The poverty is so desperate for some people this would put them in a net better condition. Investment could be better for migrant workers," he said.

He added that the move to develop the zone could be beneficial to Burmese migrant workers if labor protection standards were put in place by the Thai authorities.

In addition, Burmese migrant workers could receive access to local advocacy groups, healthcare and other organizations that they would not otherwise have access to in Burma, he said.

The agreement between Burma and Thailand also includes plans to build a second friendship bridge over the Moei River that would allow greater transportation of goods.

Border trade between the two countries currently stands at around $US600,000 per year, not including revenue earned from tourism and income tax.

Reporting by Matthew Cunningham

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