Ma Hnin Min’s* face lights up as she opens the cardboard parcel that has just arrived from Myanmar, while she’s talking with her mother on the phone. “Mum, I got everything you sent me. Don’t worry. Take good care,” she says excitedly, unwrapping the precious bundles of tightly packed dried fish and paste among other traditional foods.
“The things mum sent to me in early March arrived in three weeks. Fortunately nothing went bad because they’re only dried things. I can eat only so much Thai food so I’m really happy when mum sends food from Myanmar,” she told Frontier.
Hnin Min, 30, said she was left jobless in Myanmar when her international NGO employer and many others left the country after the 2021 coup. With the security situation worsening and the economy reeling, she joined the exodus of people escaping for a better life. She crossed illegally into Thailand, reaching the border town of Mae Sot, and now works for another NGO as a data collector for research surveys.
Even before the coup, the lack of job opportunities and low salaries had driven several million people to leave Myanmar for countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Dubai in search of work. The United Nations estimated in 2020 that there were 3.7 million Myanmar migrants working abroad.
The coup and recent post-COVID economic impact accelerated the trend, with refugees fleeing conflict joining the flow of people looking for economic survival.
Many have crossed borders illegally, by land and sea, with some seeking refugee status in Western countries. Others have applied for Myanmar passports, with the difficult application process restarting in late February after a two-month suspension.
All this has led to a boom in freight transport and logistics services, whether express deliveries for new passports or parcels for homesick exiles like Hnin Min relying on her family in Myanmar for those special foods she misses.
“We are much busier now. Business has doubled since 2020 with all the migrant workers here, and all those who fled the country to find a safe place to live,” says Ko Zay Ya, who runs a Bangkok-Myanmar freight company.
“Commodity prices have rocketed with inflation in Myanmar, so Myanmar people are buying things like clothes here in Thailand and shipping them over,” he adds. The price depends on weight or volume, with an extra large “rainbow” bag now costing about 1,400 Thai baht (K112,000 or US$40) to send.
Zay Ya says cargo volumes from Bangkok to Yangon are growing more quickly than goods coming into Thailand. Most cargoes from Myanmar are food. Hnin Min pays from 200 to 300 baht for her mother to send a box of food measuring eight cubic feet.
With Myanmar refugees increasingly scattered in faraway places around the world, the demand for air freight is on the rise too.
Ma Si*, a refugee in her 30s now living in Australia, says she used to buy Myanmar food in shops run by ethnic Karen. Now she orders directly from Yangon once or twice a month and sells some of the items.
Ma Thiri*, who works for an international freight service company, sees demand increasing from migrants and refugees in Australia, the United States and Canada.
“We use both sea and air cargo. Those transporting large volumes ship by sea, but most people are using air cargo,” she says.
Individuals flying in and out of Myanmar also sell their luggage allowance to cargo transport companies. Ma Si says it is convenient but she cannot always rely on finding someone who has the 30 kilogrammes allowance she needs. The fall in the value of Myanmar’s currency also means that cargo costs have doubled in kyat terms since 2021, she says.
These days Yangon-based freight businesses are advertising daily flights from Yangon to Singapore, Japan and Australia, and all act as agents of DHL, the international logistics company now headquartered in Germany, which handles the customs regulations of the destination country.
Trouble in land routes
Myanmar’s post-coup civil war means transport by road is getting more risky. “There are more delays on the roads because of armed clashes and checkpoints. The cost of transportation is also going up,” says Ko Soe Soe*, who works for a Mae Sot-based cargo transport business.
Previously there were two military checkpoints between Yangon and Myawaddy in Kayin State, on the Thai border opposite Mae Sot. Then in 2020 the government opened the Nyaung Khar Shay Covid-19 testing gate, linking Mon State with Bago Region, which has become the worst checkpoint for delays along the route.
Since the coup, the military has been checking vehicles for resistance fighters and weapons at the checkpoint, which is also notorious for the soldiers demanding bribes.
“It’s a real problem for us when our consignments are delayed at Nyaung Khar Shay. There are such long queues and they are getting worse. It can take us three days on the Yangon-Myawaddy route, when previously it took one,” says Soe Soe. “I think they are mainly searching for revolutionary fighters and weapons. But our packages are not safe either. Sometimes they take our goods.”
Early last year, the military installed an X-Ray machine at Nyaung Khar Shay in its efforts to track weapons and illegal goods, making queues even longer.
Ko Zaya* said it took him a day and a half to get through that checkpoint on his way to Yangon in January. “Our vehicle had to go through the X- Ray detector. Then they searched by hand. Some drivers are so impatient that they try to overtake and the jams get worse.”
“Sometimes [junta] troops take our parcels, so we have problems with our customers and have to pay compensation. It’s getting tough to do business when you have to pay bribes to keep your cargo safe,” he said.
Fraud is also becoming a problem, with online scammers impersonating freight service companies and collecting fees from unwitting customers.
“Scammers copied our Facebook photos and took advance money from our customers and then blocked our customers’ accounts or ran away,” said Ko Maung Maung, who owns a freight business.
Despite all these challenges, new cargo transport and service companies are springing up, often as family businesses. Facebook has over 50 pages of Thai-Myanmar overland cargo services and more than 10 pages of Yangon-based international sea and air cargo companies.
All this business inevitably provides more income for the military regime, which collects taxes and duties on air and sea cargo through DHL, while road transport entails paying taxes when crossing the Myawaddy-Mae Sot Friendship Bridge No.2, the legal route for freight trucks passing between the two border towns.
But for Hnin Min, who found refuge and work in Thailand, these cargo companies provide a lifeline to the Myanmar comfort food she craves at a price she can afford. “When I used to visit Thailand for a short time, eating Thai food was fine for a few days. But now I have been here for months, I was really missing food from home.”
*denotes use of a pseudonym for security reasons
Source : Frontier