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Shan women traders and their survival strategies on the Myanmar-Thailand Borderland.

At a remote border checkpoint located within the mountainous and forested landscape on the border between Myanmar's (or Burma's) (1) southern Shan State and northwest Thailand, a hand-carved wooden sign with yellow lettering is clearly visible at the side of the cemented road. The sign identifies the place as the Chutphonpron phuea kankha chaidaen Thai-Phama chongthang "Nam Phueng". (2) Under this name, the sign also reads, in poorly translated and unclear English, "Weak points transboundaries Thai-Myanmar". (3) The border crossing that I will call "Nam Phueng"--Thai for "honey"--is one among those through which Shan on the two sides of the Myanmar-Thailand borders have conducted small-scale cross-border trade activities for several decades, starting in the 1970s. In July 1996, following Khun Sa's surrendering himself to the Burmese army in January of the same year, the government of Thailand's Mae Hong Son province officially opened this checkpoint (Prakat changwat Mae Hong Son, 1 July 1996). Prior to the establishment of the checkpoint, different units of the Thai military and other national security authorities informally shaped and controlled cross-border activities there.

This article first describes the ways in which Shan petty and cross-border traders, women traders in particular, became involved in such trade activities. It then turns to the strategies and practices through which they have been able to continue trading to the present day.

During the 1970s-90s, the Burmese and subsequently the Myanmar government dispatched army units to fight ethnic insurgency groups along Burma's frontiers with Thailand, in particular the Kuomintang and Shan, Pa-o, Lahu, Kachin and Wa forces (Smith [1991] 1999, pp. 39, 133; Tzang Yawnghwe 1987). The mainstream literature on this borderland is concerned chiefly with the politics of these ethnic insurgencies, as well as the war on drugs that took place in Shan State. Ethnographic studies of small-scale cross-border trade activities, those which emerged as a consequence of and were facilitated by ethnic rebellions and insurgency movements that sprang up, are few in number. Since Shan people saw this trade as potentially lucrative, they deemed the borderland a place of "opportunities" (Harris 2013, p. 104). As a result, a number of Shan began to conduct long-distance trade in this volatile environment and develop survival strategies to deal with changing political forces. Both intentionally and unintentionally, they employed strategies that simultaneously showed their submission to political forces and their sense of shared ethnicity with local ethnic militias, such as those that formed part of Khun Sa's guerrilla movement, which moved to the area in the early 1980s. The involvement of Shan women in the trade sector described in this article highlights the role that women's participation in the outside-of-home sphere has played during recent decades in the Southeast Asian context (Walker 1999, p. 139; Kusakabe 1999, p. 417).

Since the 1990s, these female traders have further developed their trade patterns, altering their transportation modes in order to maintain and expand their activities, and also expanded their social networks and capital, even as a regime of border control has emerged to regulate transnational commodity flows. The article thus examines how these traders have adapted their strategies to deal with the new rules and regulations enforced by the Thai authorities on the border. The cross-border trade environment illustrates what Bruns and Miggelbrink (2012, pp. 11-12) identified as one in which a high level of fluidity between legality and illegality leads to circumstances in which small-scale, cross-border trade can be seen to overlap with smuggling.

Female Shan traders, especially those who are single or widowed, have shifted from their roles in the domestic sphere to seek sources of income outside the household. In this context, that shift has meant travelling far away from home and encountering difficulties and danger in the fighting zones. Over time, they have been able to maintain their trade activities by finding a market niche for certain Shan products. They have also been able to avoid being seen as the competitors of larger-scale, better-capitalized traders. Village ties, ethnicity and status as pioneers in the long-distance trade in this borderland represent the core elements that these women have employed to enhance their social networks and network capital (Sik 2012, p. 53), as well as to profit from the volatility of the border environment.

This article draws on twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork undertaken during 2012-14, mainly on the Thai side of border but including two trips into Shan State via the Nam Phueng border crossing. Conversational interviews were the main method used to collect data, while I also conducted semi-structured interviews with key informants. Participant observation also proved a tremendously useful tool at the beginning of my fieldwork, as it helped me understand how cross-border trade and illegal but licit activities were carried out. By gradually building a rapport with some of the leading traders active at Nam Phueng and plying the routes that connected it to points in Shan State, I was able ultimately to ask quite searching questions.

Small-Scale Cross-Border Traders

The small-scale cross-border trade treated here takes place through the Nam Phueng checkpoint, which is situated 920 metres above sea level in Mae Hong Son province on the Thai side of the Thailand-Myanmar border; while on the Myanmar side of that border, in Shan State, there is no official border checkpoint for immigration control or customs purposes. The Thai checkpoint is officially open for cross-border trade between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily. Although this border crossing allows people from both countries to trade, only traders from Shan State actually cross the border. Traders from the Thai side usually exchange Thai products required in Myanmar through face-to-face interactions at the border itself or inside Thai territory; most of the time they organize these exchanges by telephone in advance. To regulate the flow of people crossing the border for trading purposes, in 1996 Thai immigration authorities set up an office at Nam Phueng. Traders are granted permission to stay in Thailand for at least three days, (4) but only within the municipal zone of Mae Hong Son town (Prakat changwat Mae Hong Son, 27 April 2011). Prior to the establishment of the checkpoint, border control on traders and people crossing into Thailand was a matter of informal arrangements between authorities and local people. Each party had economic and social incentives to loosen and relax border control.

After the border checkpoint was opened, the Thai government attempted to regulate trade by requiring cross-border traders to register at the Mae Hong Son provincial "border command centre". According to this authority, approximately 200 traders operating in the province are allowed to import and export products between the two countries. (5) The Mae Hong Son provincial government has tried to systematize the control of Thai traders, both firms and individual traders. It maintains lists of registered Thai and Myanmar traders active in the province. In the discussion that follows, I categorize cross-border traders in this borderland on the basis of the origin of trade, into traders on the Thai side of the border and those on the Shan side.

On the Thai Side

Cross-border traders on the Thai side of the Nam Phueng checkpoint are registered with Mae Hong Son provincial authorities as "crossborder trade operators" on the basis of their nationality and status as individual traders, limited companies or partnerships. Although the Thai state recognizes them as Thai citizens, the majority of them are people of Shan ethnicity whose ancestors migrated to Thailand at some time between a few decades and a century ago. They also include Northern Thais and people who identify themselves as Chinese or Yunnanese Chinese.

I divide these traders on the Thai side into two types. The first type includes those who own a pick-up truck, one which must be registered as "public transport" (rot khonsong satharana) with the Mae Hong Son Provincial Office of Land Transport. Their trucks must be painted yellow and have bench seating along both sides of the back of the vehicle for passengers to sit properly. These features lead local people to refer to these traders as "yellow-truck drivers". These traders do not produce goods and sell them directly to buyers. Rather, they transport products to the border alongside the Shan traders who travel to the Mae Hong Son market or the city centre to buy Thai consumer products. So the yellow-truck drivers are a crucial link in the trading chain, as their pick-up trucks are used to transfer products from Thailand to Myanmar

with the help of Shan traders' trucks stationed at the border checkpoint. The Thai traders do not travel inside Myanmar because of a Mae Hong Son provincial order prohibiting vehicles from either side from entering the other country's territory (Prakat changwat Mae Hong Son, 1 July 1996).

I focus on the role played by these truck drivers in the cross-border trade sector for three reasons. First, most of them are former traders, who operated inside Burma during the insurgencies of the 1970s-90s. Second, they now act as middlemen; they source Thai products for delivery to Shan traders at the border checkpoint who do not cross into Thailand to buy products themselves. Third, they are part of an illicit migration network, as they collect Shan people from the border who wish to enter Thailand and at the same time take Shan migrant labourers who have been working in Thailand back to the border so they can visit their homes in Shan State.

The second type of trader includes those who export particular products in large volumes to Shan State. These traders are retailers of Thai-manufactured products or large-scale entrepreneurs who sell benzene, beer and other alcoholic drinks, cooking oil and construction tools. This group overlaps to some degree with the first one, as some of its members own yellow pick-up trucks and transport Thai products for smaller-scale traders and carry passengers to and from the border. Both types of traders also handle customs procedures on behalf of those traders from the Shan State side who lack the credentials required to register with the Thai authorities. These latter traders from Shan State are not short-term migrants who regularly travel back and forth between the two countries with three-day permits. Rather, they procure various types of identity cards in order to facilitate cross-border movements and to be able to stay in Thailand for longer periods. As a result, Thai authorities do not recognize them as "cross-border traders" from Myanmar, and they cannot register through the system put in place for such traders. Instead, Thai yellow-truck drivers of the second type into which I divide traders on the Thai side register with Thai authorities as "trading operators selling Thai products to Myanmar" and the traders from Shan State do business under their names.

On the Myanmar Side

I categorize traders on the Shan State side of the border into two main groups, although there is, in practice, variation in the degree to which members of the two groups participate in the trade activities described. First are those traders who own pick-up trucks and use them to collect products at different places in Shan State and transport them from Myanmar to Thailand, for sale to vendors in the Mae Hong Son market. Some traders in this group also transfer their products to traders or retailers who operate in other parts of Thailand. The market for the products in question is Shan people living on the Thai side of the border, for instance rice of better quality and lower cost than that available in Thailand, garlic, soya and other beans and various Shan foods and processed products. These latter include fermented soya beans or soya bean paste, pickled cabbage, fermented and seasoned tofu and herbal medicines. These traders then carry Thai consumer products, those in high demand within Myanmar, back to Shan State. As Myanmar citizens, these traders are required to register with Thai authorities. However, they might not register directly. They might instead request the yellow-truck drivers on the Thai side to register on their behalf. In practice, they work in partnership with the Thai yellow-truck drivers. When the traders from Shan State arrive at the border checkpoint, they transfer then-goods and passengers to yellow-truck drivers with whom they have a trading relationship and then accompany them into Mae Hong Son's town centre. Similarly, when they leave Thailand for Myanmar, they ride a yellow truck, and their Thai consumer products are transferred from the yellow trucks to their own vehicles at the checkpoint.

A second type of trader from the Myanmar side includes petty traders based inside Shan State, all of them women. Four principal traders participate in the cross-border trade that operates through this Nam Phueng border checkpoint. All of them are driven to the border in pick-up trucks owned by the first type of traders on the Shan State side, described just above. Traders of this second type collect products from around their homes in Shan State to sell on the Thai side of the border, and they carry Thai products back with them for sale inside Shan State. But the volumes concerned are smaller than those traded by the first type of traders from the Myanmar side. Besides, they sell products not regularly handled by the first type of trader, such as items related to Shan rituals or traditions. These items include, for example, booklets containing funeral texts, basic Shan-language textbooks, Shan costumes, and accessories to be used in the poi sang long ceremony or the ordination of a Shan Buddhist novice and at other traditional events. These petty traders cannot afford to buy vehicles of their own, since they are elderly women who have been trading since the insurgency period. They carried their goods in hap, or two-sided shoulder baskets. All of them are either single or widowed, and in this regard they differ from the first type of traders, who mostly are younger women working with their husbands in the pick-up trucks.

Shan Women in the Long-Distance Trade

In the 1980s and 1990s, during the ethnic rebellions against the Burmese government and conflicts among the armed forces of various ethnic groups that developed thereafter, people in the towns of southern Shan State engaged in trade despite the violence occurring around them. The common method used was to travel in a large group of other long-distance traders. They started from the areas in which they lived and travelled to militarized areas, especially to the towns of Homong and Mong Mai. The former was well-known in the 1970s as the administrative headquarters of the Shan State Army's southern faction, whose leader Chao Saengsuek was a former president of the Shan State Progress Party (The Irrawaddy 1999). The Shan State Army was powerful until Khun Sa took control of the area in the 1980s (Tzang Yawnghwe 1987, pp. 130, 142). (6) His relocation of his stronghold to Homong in 1983 increased the town's importance. Like the Shan State Army, Khun Sa sited the office in which he collected taxes from long-distance traders there, apparently after Shan State Army leader Chai La-ong sold Homong and Mong Mai to Khun Sa and aligned himself with the Burmese army. (7) Mong Mai, meanwhile, was also important, as the armies of different ethnic groups were stationed there (Smith [1991] 1999, pp. 333, 342-43), though Khun Sa later took absolute control. After passing through these two sites, the long-distance traders then travelled across the border to their final destination of Mae Hong Son town, as they do today.

After 1983 when Khun Sa was forced by the Thai military attack in Ban Hin Taek, Chiang Rai province to flee to and settle in Homong (McCoy 1999, pp. 138-39), the number of long-distance Shan traders increased. At that time, Burmese forces in the area were not considered as powerful as those of Khun Sa and his militias. Khun Sa claimed to control an area of territory along the Shan State-Thailand border running from Tachilek in the east to Mong Mai in the west for a distance of 150 kilometres. At that time, he had 4,000 troops in this area, in addition to militias in townships in northern Shan State (Smith [1991] 1999, p. 343). According to McCoy (1999, p. 158) and The Irrawaddy (1998), during the 1980s and through 1995 Homong had a population of about 20,000 civilians. Another source suggested that there were approximately 780 households, or about 6,000 villagers in the area of Homong. Also part of this population were approximately 17,000 to 18,000 soldiers. (8)

Because of demand by Khun Sa's troops for food and commodities in the zones around Homong and Mong Mai, people from the interior of southern Shan State took pick-up trucks to Homong and onward to the border before crossing into Thailand to purchase manufactured goods to sell back in Shan State. These traders did not produce the food or ingredients that they carried. Rather, they bought local foods and products like tua nao (dried beans in a disc shape), dried tofu, fermented tofu, pickled green mustard leaves, shallots, garlic, handrolled cigars, plant concentrate to brew alcohol and other homemade goods. They purchased such homemade products at points along their journeys rather than carrying their goods all from the places in which they lived. They also purchased animals such as chickens, ducks and pigs when they passed through villages and small towns, as these were much sought after by Khun Sa's soldiers, their families and other civilians in the area. This strategy allowed the traders to travel rather without great difficulty, especially in the upper part of southern Shan State. That area benefited from the construction of roads linked to those in northern Shan State. When the traders reached the sizable village of Nakong, where the road ended, they continued their journey on foot or by mule along trails that took them to Homong. From there, unpaved road allowed travel to the Thai border by truck. (9) Those traders who chose to travel by mule from Nakong travelled on via Khun Khan Village, located about two kilometres beyond Nakong and the spot at which the traders crossed the Teng River--a tributary of the Salween River--by boat to continue their trip.

In the early period after the emergence of long-distance trade on this route, the traders could be categorized into two groups, depending on the capital that they had available to finance journeys. First were those who could afford to rent mules from Nakong and Khun Khan villagers. Using mules, they could carry more goods than if travelling on foot, and thus generate more income from each trip. Most of the traders who rented mules were men, as they were considered more skilled at riding the animals. The female traders travelling from distant townships or the northern part of southern Shan State travelled in groups that included male family members, in order to have protection from sexual advances made by male traders or soldiers from the different insurgent groups encountered along the way. The second group of traders included women who did not rent mules, because they lacked both capital and the skills needed to ride the mules. These traders could be seen walking while carrying hap filled with goods for sale on their shoulders.

As a result of the long-distance trade activities that took place in this period, nearly every household in Nakong and Khun Khan had a significant source of income in addition to its primary source. That is, these households rent mules out. "Mae thao Sing" (Granny Sing), (10) a Nakong villager, said that hers was one of fifty households in the village which turned space in their houses into stables, in order to keep mules.

   Back then, my husband decided to buy mules, and I remember

   that almost every house in our village had at least one mule.

   Those who were quite rich had about ten mules, while some only

   had one or two; to earn extra income in addition to farming. Each

   day, many traders would rent mules to carry their goods. When

   there were no traders using the mules, the animals were kept

   under the house and fed with rice husks. (11)

In 2014, a picturesque recollection of the Teng River crossing was described by thirty-nine-year-old "Nang Mia" (Miss Mia), who had also engaged in small-scale trade alongside her father. Her home was in Laihka, nearly in northern Shan State and between 180 and 200 kilometres--a few days' walk--from Nakong. She said that being a mae ka--Shan for female trader--gave her the chance to help her family more than did staying at home and farming. By the 1980s, roads had already been built in upper southern Shan State, despite the rugged terrain, and they allowed her to travel by pick-up truck. However, the return trip from her hometown to the Thai border still took an average of fifteen days (See Figure 2 and Trade Route A on Figure 3.1 and Figure 3.2).

   I remember the fare from my hometown to Nakong was between 300 and

   400 kyat per person. Before reaching Nakong, I started collecting

   foodstuffs to sell in Homong. At that time, I travelled with my

   father, as I was not even fifteen. We rented two mules for a total

   of 1,200 kyat [in Nakong], I once tried to ride a mule, but kept

   falling off when the mule climbed on the hill. The trips were quite

   hard, especially when we crossed the Teng River, as there was only

   one boat a day transporting people from Khun Khan to the other side

   of the river, and it could carry only seven to eight people at a

   time, along with their goods and animals such as pigs, chickens and

   ducks. The boat fees were 5-6 khan (12) per pig, depending on their

   size, plus 3 khan for a bamboo basket containing between ten and

   thirty chickens. Mules had to go with us, leaving the boats very

   crowded; so people placed their heads on the sides of the boat and

   let their bodies float in the stream, to save space. We paid 5-6

   khan per mule. It was only about a ten-minute ride as the Teng

   River was only two to three meters wide and quite calm. When we

   reached shore, we disembarked and packed the goods on to the mules,

   before continuing our trip. (13)

This account corresponds with the observations made by Chang (2013, pp. 303-4), who says that Shan women played a significant role in the long-distance trade sector in the 1980s, when the trading mode changed from mule caravans to motorized transport delivering men and supplies to the Thai frontier. This new means of transport contrasted with what had come before in another significant respect. In the 1960s and 1970s mule-caravan traders depended on ethnic insurgent groups both to obtain information and for protection against the Burmese army. Nang Mia's experience of travel with a private truck revealed that roads were constructed for vehicles and she could be one among the Shan women traders emerging in the 1980s about whom Chang wrote.

The case of "Mae thao Tom" (Granny Tom) was similar. She had a small shop or stand in Khun Khan village, but, after seeing the prosperity generated by long-distance trade, she decided to join in, closing her shop when travelling. She normally travelled with between three and six other people, both men and women. Most of the time, she was accompanied by her eldest brother. After reaching Homong, she sold goods to around ten small shops there; she also sold to other shops on the way from Homong to the Thai border. Once they had sold all of their goods, they headed back home. As a result, they did not always travel on to Mae Hong Son town, though they did so sometimes to buy canned fish, MSG, sandals and flashlight batteries for use at home. (14)

"Pa Pi" (Auntie Pi) was one of the mae ka who walked from Mawk Mai (Mio Ne district) approximately thirty kilometres across the mountain to Nakong village. She started her long-distance trade activities in 1986, at the age of twenty-six, using a hap like the majority of female traders at that time. Pa Pi and about ten other traders would walk in a group that included men. After crossing the Teng River, they had to stay overnight in a jungle area where there were a few shops and open space to rest. On the third night, they would sleep at the foot of a mountain called Doi Pang Hung after crossing the Nam Kong River, the Salween River in Shan, at a pier called Tha Huai Pong. The group would then walk on to Homong, passing through teak plantations in the area of Tawaet village. Khun Sa's soldiers logged that area to meet orders placed with Khun Sa by Thai businessmen in the timber trade. The traders usually stayed in Homong for at least one or two nights, to sell products or distribute them to small shops at a central market and in town (please see Figure 2, Trade Route B on Figure 3.1, and Figure 3.2). (15)

During the ethnic insurgency, and especially in the Khun Sa era, Pa Pi did not have to pay any money to the ethnic insurgent groups posted on the Burmese side of the border, because she was not a kon ka long--a large-scale trader in Shan, one with sufficient capital to use mules to carry her or his goods. Female traders using hap were considered poor and thus exempt from paying taxes until they reached the Thai border. (16)

Survival Strategies in the Time of Insurgency

In some situations during the insurgency period, fighting between the ethnic groups, as well as sanctions imposed by powerful political leaders, severely affected trading activities. Chang (2009, p. 562; 2013, pp. 301-2) describes how Yunnanese long-distance traders learned about and dealt with the local politics in each of the locations through which they passed. Learning how to deal with powerful political figures led to traders' developing reciprocal relations with them. In particular, when traders entered ethnic insurgency zones, they often had to pay fees to the ethnic militias, receiving information from the heads of the relevant ethnic groups in return. This type of activity happened on a regular basis around Burma's frontiers. For example, when fighting occurred between the Shan and Pa-0 groups between 1970 and 1972, the Pa-0 were dominant and so occupied important areas, in particular along the route used by the long-distance traders. This route ran from Mong Nai and passed through Langkhur township. Chao Oowa (Lord Oowa), one of the Shan State Army's soldiers, who was also a chief officer of its tax collecting section at that time, said,

   We were fighting each other very hard, but eventually the Pa-0 won

   and closed several zones. Long-distance traders were affected as

   well; being trapped and not able to get back to their home towns.

   We negotiated with the Pa-O, as we needed food and other goods. The

   agreement we made was that the Pa-0 would open the route, and then

   both Pa-0 and Shan groups would set-up posts, to tax traders in

   order to finance their operations. I believe this was when the use

   of these taxing posts began, something that has continued to this

   day. (17)

The fees that insurgent groups extracted from long-distance and cross-border traders reflected the complex and profound relationships that developed and the benefits shared by the two sides. These benefits highlighted the reciprocal relationship that existed between the givers and recipients. From the traders' perspective, the money paid to the soldiers was given in exchange for permission to trade along a given route without encountering any problems; it secured protection from attacks carried out by other ethnic insurgency movements. In return, ethnic insurgency movements received much-needed goods and products from inside Burma and Thailand, carried by the long-distance traders and required by the insurgents to continue operating. These exchanges represented reciprocal relationships on which each party depended. On the one hand, the traders received permission to trade and protection from the ethnic movements, while, on the other, the ethnic insurgency movements depended on the commodities and money extracted from the traders to support and finance their movements. (18)

This situation shows that, despite the fighting between the different political elites and their armies, long-distance trade did not stop entirely. One incident reveals the way in which traders coped with the fighting and the closure of trade routes that often took place at that time. During the 1980s, the route into Homong from the Salween River was closed for four years because of fighting between Burmese soldiers and Khun Sa's army. This period was described by "Ong", a male trader from Mawk Mai:

   It was a war zone. The Burmese government dispatched around 4,000

   soldiers to the area, and around 1,000 Wa militia personnel were

   also sent. Once, almost a hundred people were killed in one

   incident alone. Traders could not pass through this area because of

   the fighting; so we had to take a detour through Taunggyi, before

   continuing to Loikaw [the capital of Kayah State], and then travel

   on to Mae Hong Son through Mae Chae Pass. From my home in Mawk Mai,

   I travelled north to Mong Nai, then continued to Nam Chang, Mong

   Pon and Hopong, before eventually reaching Taunggyi. (19)

The long-distance traders did not let the fighting stop their trade activities. Even though it sometimes interrupted their business, they found alternative routes to sustain their trade activities. Moreover, border demarcations between the two countries did not appear in their worldview; they were merely aware of the political forces harming their business. Van Schendel (2004, pp. 119-20) suggests that one strategy used by borderlanders to deal with state regulations at this time was to show "genuine ignorance", to act as though the border or the restrictions governing it did not exist. This strategy worked as long as the regulations did not have a direct and negative impact on their personal trade activities.

Nang Mia's experiences during the Khun Sa period also reveal that traders could not avoid interacting with the soldiers of both the Burmese military and Khun Sa's army. The traders would usually stop overnight wherever Khun Sa's army was stationed, in order to secure their protection. For instance, after crossing the Teng River, they occasionally encountered a few of Khun Sa's soldiers patrolling the area (see Figures 3.1 and 3.2).

   Khun Sa's army had its first settled unit at the Pan River;

   however, there were only fifty to one hundred soldiers stationed

   there. It was not as large as a Burmese army unit. In the area

   around Loi Yao Mountain was another unit, which was stationed with

   about 100-200 soldiers. After crossing the Nam Kong, we would

   continue on, passing several small villages of only twenty or so

   households, but at each of these villages would be stationed ten to

   twenty of Khun Sa's soldiers. The largest unit was in Mong Mai.


When they encountered Khun Sa's soldiers, the traders would gain the soldiers' protection by providing them with some of the goods being transported to Homong. Nang Mia said that, when they were on their way to the Thai border, she and her father often did not have any money, as they had used it all to buy stock. As a result, she most often gave the soldiers food, and especially tua nao, fermented tofu and pickled green mustard. "I remember that they never asked for money, and we knew that they had nothing to eat." (21) The economic value of the traders' commodities was thus transformed into social and cultural value, in a process that at the same time created relationships and attachments (Bell 1991, pp. 156, 159) between the Shan traders and Khun Sa's soldiers. This transformation was possible because Nang Mia realized that foodstuffs would help the soldiers survive during difficult times. Moreover, the exchange of certain food items symbolized the social relations, in the form of shared ethnicity, that existed between the givers and receivers, since the long-distance traders chose to give particular items to the soldiers and not just anything that they had. They realized that tua nao, tofu and pickled green mustard were items that Khun Sa's soldiers, who were mainly Shan, would want and need, because these items were core elements of Shan food culture (Busarin 2015, p. 150).

The long-distance traders' arduous journeys would then continue to the Thai border, where they usually stayed overnight either in a border village in Shan State or in the first village on the Thai side. The next day, they reached Mae Hong Son town. They would stay in the town for one or two days, depending on how long it took them to buy the Thai products that they planned to take back to Shan State. Traders who carried precious stones like diamonds or jade tended to stay a bit longer, to look for the best deals among the local businessmen.

Traders operating from the Thai side of the frontier also conducted long-distance trade, and these traders continue to play a crucial role to this day. During the period from the 1980s to the early 2000s, a number of people on the Thai side of the frontier saw the opportunity to trade in consumer products. The teak trade between Thai interests and ethnic leaders including Khun Sa had brought with it the improvement of roads not only between Mae Hong Son town and the border but also in Shan State (Lintner 1995, p. 74). These infrastructural improvements meant that pick-up trucks could reach the teak plantations, although most of the roads were still fairly bumpy. (22) The majority of traders on the Thai side active in the border trade at this time were of Shan ethnicity, either people bom in Thailand or people who had migrated to Thailand several decades before and had been able to obtain Thai citizenship. Their Shan language skills and the cultural practices that they had inherited from previous generations led them to participate in long-distance trade. Almost all of these early traders are still active; they are the group described above as traders on the Thai side. Some non-Shan people, especially northern Thais, who had previously been involved in the teak business also engaged in trade activities in this borderland.

"Watthani", now in her sixties, was one of the Shan traders from the Thai side who traded in Burma's war zones during the Khun Sa era. She lived in a village near the border, and the proximity of the conflict zone turned potential danger into economic opportunity. She started buying consumer products in Thailand to sell in Homong, and sometimes even in Taunggyi. She used a pick-up truck, as before the establishment of the Nam Phueng border crossing, vehicles from both sides were allowed to cross the border between Mae Hong Son and Homong if they bore a black licence plate granted by the Mae Hong Son government. When Watthani aimed to go further than Homong, she drove a truck with a Burmese licence plate. The Burmese kyat was also very strong then, and so she was able to benefit from selling products demanded by people on the Shan State side.

   I remember that most of the Thai commodities sold very well, and

   especially mama (instant noodles). On the Thai side, we bought the

   noodles at 2 baht per pack, but just over the border we sold each

   pack at nine times the Thai price; at 18 baht. (23)

In 2000 "Oraphan", a female long-distance trader who also lived in a village on the Thai side, started driving a pick-up herself to Homong and on to Taunggyi. As the daughter of a Yunnanese father and a Shan mother, Oraphan had a linguistic advantage in trade; she was able to speak Yunnanese, Shan, Thai and Burmese and conduct business successfully during her travels, from Thailand all the way to the capital of Shan State. In addition, the strength of the kyat helped Oraphan's business succeed. Between 2004 and 2006, 100 kyat could be exchanged for 22 baht, whereas at the time of my research in 2012 the rate was only 100 kyat to between 3.5 and 3.8 baht. As a result of this weakening of the kyat, Oraphan stopped long-distance trading and instead started driving a yellow truck for a living, transporting Shan people and their goods between the two sides of the border until today. (24)

The partial life stories of these traders reveal the origins of their participation in long-distance trade. Most of those on the Shan State side traded alongside others from their home village, because being part of a group allowed them to pass more safely through conflict zones to the Thai border. In particular, female traders would not travel to the border alone; they always travelled with male family members or male traders from the same village. The two female traders operating on the Thai side had access to capital and thus to better means of transportation, in addition to trading skills and knowledge, and they were able to use advantages in coping with problems such as the weakness of the Burmese kyat that could have adversely affected their business activities.

Cross-border Trade in the New Regime

Cross-border trade in this borderland is very much dependent on and affected by border politics, by the operations and regulations of state entities. At the present time, not only the Thai and Myanmar states but also a charismatic and powerful Wa family and the Shan State Army-South are present in this borderland. These four political entities contest and compromise with each other.

Today, what I call "the Wa family" controls the Homong-Mong Mai zone, following Khun Sa's surrender to the Burmese army. Maha Ja co-founded the Wa National Army insurgent group with his brother Maha Hsang. The two are former aides to Khun Sa and some Shan nationalist movements (Smith [1991] 1999, pp. 351-522). The Wa family rules over and administers the entire border area of southernmost Shan State, stretching to the east bank of the Salween River and adjoining Mae Hong Son's Mueang and Pangmapha districts. It operates through a company called South Shan State (SSS, or "triple S"). This arrangement resulted from Maha Ja's negotiation with the Burmese army after Khun Sa turned himself in to the Burmese army, thus gaining permission to conduct business in a number of sectors. These included logging in areas such as Kengtawng, Mong Nai and Khunhing; gem mining; service businesses like hotels; and other lines of trade in certain areas, especially Langkhur, Mong Nai, Namchang, Loilem, Mongpon and Tuanggyi (Lem 2008; S.H.A.N. 2008; The Irrawaddy 2000a, 20006).

At present Maha Ja's age and poor health have led him to hand administrative power to his eldest son, the roughly thirty-year old Chao Nu. What Maha Ja controlled and managed has been transformed from a political movement into a family business. It is for this reason that I refer to this political force as "the Wa Family". In addition, people perceive this family as their rulers, calling Maha Ja and his son "chao khun" (princely ruler) or simply "chao" (lord); they believe that Maha Ja and his brother are descended from the princely Wa family of Vieng Ngun (Tzang Yawnghwe 1987, p. 205; Smith [1991] 1999, pp. 95, 221). (25)

The Wa family is also authorized by the Burmese Army to establish rules and regulations to control people and communities, including people who are travelling within this zone and traders involved in the cross-border trade. It set up a series of checkpoints along the roads. The Burmese government also has military units stationed at several villages and towns, including the village nearest to the border checkpoint. All these checkpoints extract fees from those travelling to and from the border, such as traders driving pick-up trucks and both short- and long-term migrants--including those who are labourers in Thailand and are travelling to visit then-homes in Shan State.

Wa and Burmese authorities treat traders differently, depending on their status and capital. The majority of cross-border traders from Shan State own their own pick-up trucks, which they use to transport both commodities and passengers--most of whom are labour migrants who work in Thailand for periods of several years at a time. This group of traders mainly consists of couples who normally travel together. Many of the Shan couples who started their trading activities during the insurgency period in the 1980s then became labour migrants in Thailand, working there for a decade or more until they were able to accumulate sufficient capital to invest in a used pick-up truck.

Among such traders the common practice is for the husband to drive the truck while the wife sits alongside interacting and negotiating with those who man the posts or checkpoints that they pass, those set up by the Wa and by the army, police, and pyithu sit village militias. The wives, as female traders, manage these negotiations in a number of different ways--by paying fees and offering gifts in the form of goods taken from their trucks in order to facilitate their business activities, just like the female traders described in the studies of Kusakabe (2004, p. 58), Chang (2013, pp. 303-4) and Lada and Connell (2014, p. 382).

The second group of traders includes women who have been trading since the 1980s and who continue to trade. But they have changed their mode of travel from walking with hap and taking the truck to transporting with the truck all the way from their towns to the Thai border. Pa Pi, mentioned earlier, is one such trader. The Wa family and Burmese authorities treat these female traders with greater leniency than other traders, who have to pay money or provide gifts at their respective checkpoints. Soldiers from the Shan State Army-South whom these women encounter by chance also treat them leniently. Their gender and their hap identified them as petty traders; in contrast, mules carrying larger volumes of goods and led by male traders and cattle-traders' animals were considered valuable, one of the major commodities in demand on the Thai side of the border.

"Ong", a female trader from Shan State who owns a pick-up truck and runs a business with her husband, revealed an experience which is opposite to Pa Pi's. The couple are charged at different checkpoints for carrying commodities and passengers. The charge for carrying Thai products loaded in the truck when travelling from the border to the town in which Ong lives is between 50 and 400 baht within the Wa's zone of control and between 1,000 and 20,000 kyat at posts run by the Burmese army, the police or pyithu sit. Traders are required to share some of the fee for transporting Shan labour migrants between Myanmar and Thailand: between 200 and 300 baht within the Wa zone of control, and between 1,000 and 20,000 kyat in the Myanmar zone. The rate charged depends on the traders' destinations. The further they are from the Thai border, the more they have to pay at these checkpoints. In addition, they sometimes have to pay fees to the Shan State Army-South, amounting to around 5,000 baht per year. (26)

Pa Pi, meanwhile, does not own a vehicle. She has to pay the transportation costs incurred when travelling between her home in Mawk Mai and the Thai border, and the truck fares incurred when travelling between the Thai border and Mae Hong Son town. However, when she travels with traders from Mawk Mai who have a pick-up truck, she pays less because both groups are from the same village:

   In the past I did not pay much, just the transportation costs,

   especially for the riverboat crossing. I walked while carrying hap;

   so I did not have to pay taxes to the soldiers either. When

   entering Thailand, I paid about 20 baht to the Thai authorities. It

   worked like this until ten years ago, when I started taking a truck

   into Thailand. Even then, I did not have to pay any taxes, because

   the Thai authorities considered me to be a petty trader selling

   small amounts. Added to this, I did not have to register with the

   Mae Hong Son authorities either. As a result of being waived taxes,

   I was able to make a living; I just paid around 200 baht--kha nam

   kha wan (27)--to the Thai authorities. (28)

Apart from their status as female petty traders whose profits exemption from taxation enhances, another asset that these traders use to run their businesses are their networks. Social networks and network capital play a prominent role in trade activities in border settings (Chang 2004, 2009, 2013; Aranya 2008; Sik 2012; Lada and Connell 2014). The Shan female traders described here also employ social networks--those based on village fellowship ties and their Shan ethnicity--to develop and expand their trade activities.

One trader who uses her network is sixty-five-year-old "Pa Saeng" (Auntie Saeng) from Mawk Mai. She travels in a pick-up truck owned by another female cross-border trader, called "Nang Cham", who has more capital than Pa Saeng and could thus afford to buy the vehicle. Nang Cham does

not see Pa Saeng as a competitor, because they trade in quite different commodities and volumes. While Pa Saeng sells small Shan cultural items, Nang Cham trades in consumer products from Thailand, as well as transporting passengers between Mawk Mai and the Thai border. Before reaching the border, she contacts her regular yellow pick-up truck driver on the Thai side. This driver is the holder of a document granted by the Thai military giving him permission to take traders on the Shan State side to Mae Hong Son town and to take them back within three days, which is stated in the Mae Hong Son Provincial Order dated 27 April 2011. Shan traders and yellow-truck drivers have thus created a particular relationship in the context of the Thai government's regulations; several exemplary case situations are described here.

When Pa Saeng arrives at the border checkpoint, she transfers to a Thai pick-up truck driven by Watthani, the trader mentioned above who is also Pa Saeng's trading partner on the Thai side of the frontier. They have an agreement whereby Watthani drives Pa Saeng to trade in Mae Hong Son town. The relationship serves as a cross-border trade partnership. Watthani was one of the pioneers of this trade route during the Khun Sa era. She has formed partnerships with many Shan traders from Myanmar who also own pick-up trucks, like Nang Cham, and also petty traders such as Pa Saeng. After crossing the border, Pa Saeng and Nang Cham usually stay at a house whose Shan owners they have known for a long time.

The relationships that exist between the Shan cross-border traders from the two sides of the border are an important form of social capital, one that has helped them develop strong social networks; Aranya (2008, p. 124) calls them "cross-border linkages". In the case described above, village fellowship facilitates the relationship between Nang Cham and Pa Saeng, while a cross-border trade partnership helps create business relations among Nang Cham, Pa Saeng and Watthani. Finally, the shared sense of ethnicity, of being Shan, is shown in the relationship that has developed among Nang Cham, Pa Saeng and the owner of the house at which they stay on the Thai side of the frontier. It is also evident in the manner in which traders from both sides of the border conduct their trade activities. All these relations have been created, developed and maintained over the years on the basis of social networks and network capital.

Dealing with Regulations and State Authorities

Under the new regime on the Burmese border, especially after Khun Sa's surrender to the Burmese army, the previous conflict zones on the Myanmar-Thailand border have been normalized and a border checkpoint officially opened on the Thai side. As a result, traders on the Shan State side have had to learn how to deal both with a new set of border regulations and with the Thai authorities. This set of circumstances has revealed the co-existence of small-scale cross-border trade activities and illegal smuggling operations (Bruns and Miggelbrink 2012, p. 11).

The story told by a female trader from Taunggyi in her late fifties, uPa Hom" (Auntie Hom), helps describe this situation. Pa Hom has engaged in cross-border trade for more than forty years. She is able to speak Shan, Thai, Burmese and Mandarin, coming as she does from the Kokang area of Myanmar, on the border with China. She is also one of just a few women traders who carry out their trade activities alone. Pa Hom travels the farthest to the border of all the traders whom I encountered in my research; it normally takes her a few days to reach her destination after a journey of approximately 295 kilometres, depending on the condition of the roads. As is common among independent traders, Pa Hom boards a pick-up truck driven by another cross-border trader travelling to the Thai border. Pa Hom's case is similar to that of Pa Seang, in that at the border she contacts the yellow-truck driver with whom she has a trade partnership.

Likewise, on the way back to Myanmar after the completion of her business in Thailand, Pa Hom has to find a trader whose destination is the same as hers. Sometimes it is not so easy to find a trader who is travelling directly to Taunggyi from the Thai border, and on such occasions she has to transfer from one truck to another to reach her final destination. As a result, on most of the trips Pa Hom ends up stopping overnight at a number of locations. About being a female independent trader, she told me, "As I trade by myself, I cannot dictate the time schedule. I have to depend on the drivers who are on their way to Taunggyi. Often, I do not know in advance how many days it will take me to reach home". (29)

Pa Hom's case suggests that being seen as a veteran female petty trader by political elites in Shan State and by Thai authorities can be an advantage. Although Thai customs impose duty on Shan traders when they sell goods in Thailand, such traders use a variety of tactics to avoid this duty, most often successfully. One tactic is to pack goods into several small-sized bags. For example, Pa Hom may buy a one-hundred-kilogramme sack of pae-lo beans in Shan State. But, when arriving at the Nam Phueng checkpoint, she will separate the items into two fifty-kilogramme bags. This division turns a "commercial" commodity into personal belongings and allows her to avoid the Thai import duty. In addition, the rate at which Thai customs taxes goods relates to the packaging of carriers or containers being transported, not the weight of the goods. Although Pa Hom repackages her goods into smaller sacks at the Thai checkpoint, where everyone--including the Thai authorities--can observe her, no one prevents her from doing so, even though it violates Thai customs regulations.

Although the cross-border trade activities described here are subject to rules, local authorities do not always rigidly enforce all of the regulations. As Turner (2013, pp. 11-12) asserts, cross-border traders do not actively seek to violate rules and regulations. They simply wish to maximize their profits and maintain their livelihood strategies. This point of view aligns with Boedeker's observations (Boedeker 2012, pp. 54-56) of Baloch smugglers along the Afghan-Iranian border, where flows of goods and people are embedded in common social practice. In such an environment, smuggling is seen as a normal trading activity, one carried out to improve traders' livelihoods rather than as a clandestine activity. The tactics used by traders like Pa Hom may be seen to reflect Turner and Boedeker's arguments. Pa Hom does not try to challenge Thai state authorities. Rather, she works tactfully to make a profit from trading. Furthermore, repackaging goods in order to avoid being taxed heavily is a common practice among cross-border traders elsewhere, especially those who combine the status of trader with that of tourist (Harris 2013, pp. 114-15; Konstantinov 1996, p. 762) or "ant traders" who carry goods in smaller volumes to avoid being checked and taxed by authorities (Abraham and van Schendel 2005, p. 4). Another tactic used to avoid paying taxes is to change the meaning applied to the goods being carried, from commodities into personal belongings, even though the state authorities know this takes place. One Thai soldier responsible for recording the passengers, traders and goods crossing through the Nam Phueng border checkpoint confirmed this:

   Actually, a sack of pae-lo beans should be taxed at 200 baht.

   Sometimes, the traders hire people at 20 baht a time to walk with

   the bags and pretend they are their personal belongings. What

   can we do about that? The imported goods have been turned into

   personal belongings. (30)

Pa Hom's case highlights another aspect to consider when studying petty traders on the Myanmar-Thailand border. Pa Hom is seen as being of a lower status, both in terms of class and gender, and her experience reflects arguments made by Kusakabe et al. (2008, pp. 13-14) about the ways in which female fish traders on the Cambodian-Thai border act "subservient" to the other actors there, and especially to state authorities. Pa Hom's case shows that Thai authorities tend to turn a blind eye to traders like her--single, female petty traders who have traded for several decades. The reason for their indulgence is that the authorities have developed a close working relationship with the traders.


The partial life stories of Shan people, especially women, presented in this article relate to their involvement in long-distance trade in the Burma-Thailand borderland during the period of intense fighting taking place between the ethnic rebel movements and the Burmese regime between the 1970s and the 1990s. The number of traders in the area rose during the 1980s, once Khun Sa set up his base in Homong town. These women were able to take advantage of the economic opportunities that arose from being mae ka, or long-distance female traders, at that time. As well as economic capital, these traders depended on village fellowships and on social capital in terms of membership of border trade groups, as these forms of capital allowed them to travel to the remote and dangerous border areas within which they traded.

The women's narratives from this time illustrate that they endured physical hardship and overcame poor infrastructure on the Shan State side. They show the manner in which they dealt with difficulties during the height of the ethnic insurgency movements and the associated fighting. Nevertheless, they were able to turn the status and capital that they built up during this time to their advantage, as when they were exempted from fees or taxes to those with political power because they were considered poor and only petty traders. During this period, Shan traders in the borderland studied here had to negotiate with these groups. They provided these groups with goods in exchange for permission to trade and for protection during their travels. These exchanges reflected the reciprocal relationships that existed between the traders and the militias formed by these groups, as they depended upon each other for survival.

In the present time, some of the women on the Shan State side of the border continue to trade, despite the new political regime that exists inside Myanmar, the changing patterns of cross-border trade that have developed between Myanmar and Thailand and the influence of the powerful Wa family. These traders achieve their business goals because they have maintained social networks and social capital in the form of village fellowship and a sense of "being Shan". These networks and capital are most obviously seen in the cross-border trade linkages and partnerships that they have maintained since the time of the former regime. In addition, being seen as old hands and experienced traders from the old days, as well as being single or widowed, has helped with their trade activities.


First, I thank Kirsten Endres for her initiative in turning papers presented at the 2013 EuroSEAS conference into this special volume of SOJOURN, and for her valuable comments on this paper in the initial stage of revision. I also appreciate Michael Montesano's editorial work in improving this article into its present form. I am also grateful to two anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticism, which helped improve this paper significantly. Last, I thank Ampom Jirattikom, Arratee Ayuttakom, Soimart Rungmanee and Prasert Rangkla, who shared their ideas on an earlier version of this article.

Busarin Lertchavalitsakul is a doctoral candidate at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam, Roeterseiland Campus, B-REC B 5.01, Nieuwe Achtergracht 166, 1018 WV Amsterdam; email: aerbusarin

DOI: 10.1355/sj30-3c


(1.) "Burma" is used prior to the 1990s, while "Myanmar" as the country's name is used after the 1990s, following the Burmese military government's change of the country's name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989.

(2.) That is the [TEXTE NON REPRODUCTIBLE EN ASCII.] "Honey Pass Thai-Myanmar Permitted Border Trading Point"; "Honey Pass" is a pseudonym.

(3.) This sign has been in place since at least the beginning of my fieldwork in September 2012; it was still in place at the border checkpoint in May 2014.

(4.) In addition to small-scale trade, this regulation applies in particular to those travelling to Thailand for medical treatment, including maternal care, post-delivery services and infant vaccinations at either a health station or a state hospital in Mae Hong Son town.

(5.) Mae Hong Son border command centre's reports dated 21 March 2011, on registered individual traders and firms in Myanmar and Thailand compiled by the Mae Hong Son province's border command centre.

(6.) Interview with Chao Oowa Sunanta, a former Shan State Army tax collector, on 19 January 2013, Ban Kha Han, Mae Hong Son province.

(7.) Ibid., and interview with Ong, a male trader who was taxed by Khun Sa, 27 December 2013, in Mae Hong Son town.

(8.) Interview with Khuensai Jaiyen, editor of the Shan Herald Agency for News (S.H.A.N.) and former personal secretary to Khun Sa, on 8 April 2013, at the S.H.A.N. office, Chiang Mai.

(9.) Interview with several Shan traders described in this paper.

(10.) All traders' names used here are pseudonyms.

(11.) Interview with Mae thao Sing on 18 May 2014, in Mae Hong Son town.

(12.) A small denomination Shan currency. One khan was equivalent to about ten Thai baht.

(13.) Interview with Nang Mia on 13 May 2014 at Ban Nam Phueng, Mae Hong Son.

(14.) Interview with Mae thao Tom, seventy-three years old, on 14 May 2014, Khun Khan village, Shan State.

(15.) Interviews with Pa Pi, sixty years old, on 29 September 2012 at the Nam Pheung border crossing, and 26 December 2012 in Mae Hong Son town.

(16.) Ibid.

(17.) Interview with Chao Oowa Sunanta, 19 January 2013 at Kha Han village, Mae Hong Son.

(18.) Ibid; Interview with Kamnan Chit (Sub-district Chief Chit), an influential trader and then sub-district headman, on 26 January 2013 at Huai Pha village, Mae Hong Son, and interview with Khuensai Jaiyen, on 8 April 2013, at the S.H.A.N. office, Chiang Mai.

(19.) Interview with Ong on 27 December 2012 in Mae Hong Son town.

(20.) Interview with Nang Mia on 14 April 2014 at Ban Nam Phueng, Mae Hong Son.

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) Interview with Kamnan Chit on 26 January 2013 at Huai Pha village, Mae Hong Son.

(23.) Interview with Watthani on 17 September 2012 in Mae Hong Son town.

(24.) Interview with Oraphan on 16 September 2012 at the Nam Phueng border crossing.

(25.) This paragraph also draws on the author's work with informants in Homong and other villages in southern Shan State between September 2012 and May 2014.

(26.) Interview with Ong on 9 November 2012, at Nam Phueng village, Mae Hong Son.

(27.) "The cost of water and the cost of a cup" in Shan; "tea money".

(28.) Interview with Pa Sing on 25 January 2013 in Mae Hong Son town.

(29.) Interview with Pa Hom on 28 September 2012 in Mae Hong Son town.

(30.) Interview on 11 April 2014 at the Nam Phueng border crossing.


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Author:Lertchavalitsakul, Busarin
Publication:SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
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Date:Nov 1, 2015
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