Trucks backed up at Chinese borders in Myanmar and Laos due to COVID restrictions

Long lines of trucks have formed at the Chinese borders of Laos and Myanmar, held up by China’s restriction of imports in an effort to prevent more coronavirus outbreaks, sources in both Southeast Asian countries told RFA.

In Myanmar’s eastern border town of Muse, exports to China of seven types of goods — including rice, chilies and eels — have been suspended since March 15, resulting in a backup of more than 70 trucks, border traders there told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

"From the very beginning, it has been very difficult to trade with the Chinese side because of the high cost and the frequent changes in the system,” Than Bo Oo, general secretary of the Muse Rice Commodity Exchange, told RFA. “Lately, most of the goods being moved are those left over from recent months. No new shipments have come from the mainland.”

“We are still adjusting to the system changes. The cost of shipping from the border now seems higher than the cost of shipping on the seas," he said.

Some of the trucks have opted to unload their cargo into warehouses along the Muse border rather than wait around for China to ease the restrictions, he said.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, border traders were able to export 40,000 to 60,000 bags of rice a day. Prior to last week’s restrictions, only two or three 12-wheelers with 50 tons of rice could get into China each day, the traders told RFA. Now none are crossing.

Fisheries products are now being sent to China through the air because the land route is inaccessible, Tai Kyaw said.

Khun Min Thant blamed China’s policy of delegating responsibility for local COVID-19 policies for the back-up at the border. He said that local Chinese officials in areas near the Myanmar are quick to stop imports to show they are trying to respond to outbreaks. They worry that doing nothing would put their jobs in jeopardy.

“Two mayors already lost their positions in Ruili in connection with COVID surges. So if only one or two people are found infected, they order a complete lockdown,” Khun Min Thant said “Under these circumstances, our losses will continue.

More than 200 trucks have been stopped at the border by Chinese authorities in Kachin State, just north of Muse.

The recurring opening and closing of the border since trade officially resumed in November last year has been a headache for Myanmar traders. RFA reported in January that after an abrupt closing, trucks carrying watermelons decided to dump their cargo near the border rather than wait around for the fruit to spoil.

China is fighting its worst COVID-19 outbreak since the Wuhan mass infections at the start of the pandemic, with authorities struggling to contain the highly contagious omicron variant under the Chinese Communist Party's controversial "dynamic zero-COVID" policy.

An estimated 50 million people had been placed under lockdown in various cities and districts across the country as of last week.

Figures for lockdowns in Yunnan, the Chinese province bordering Laos and Myanmar, were not immediately available. But local media said Chinese authorities closed a fruit market in the border town of Ruili after a cluster of transmissions was reported on March 8.

Thaung Naing, an assistant secretary at the Ministry of Commerce, told RFA that officials with the ruling military junta are working to get China to lift the various restrictions on Myanmar goods.

RFA attempted to contact the Chinese embassy in Yangon but received no response.

According to figures from the Myanmar Ministry of Commerce, cross-border trade between Myanmar and China totaled $5.47 billion for 2020. But it slumped to only $3.13 billion last year.

Laos’ logjam

The backup of trucks at the Chinese border in Laos remains agonizingly long for drivers trying to get their goods into China, with disputes over access spilling into fistfights between Lao and Chinese truckers. Even as trade between the countries resumed, China imposed a number of precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus, including reducing the number of trucks that can cross over the border gate at Boten.

“It’s been a parking lot from Nampheng Village all the way to the Boten border gate for almost six months now,” a Lao truck driver told RFA’s Lao Service, describing a backup of about 25 miles.

“It takes us more than 14 days to get to our destination in China,” he said.

Another trucker told RFA that the authorities must solve the congestion at the border soon, because most of the trucks are carrying produce.

“Some products have an expiration date, and they won’t be accepted by the Chinese. For example, vegetables, watermelons, bananas and chilies are quickly perishable. The dry produce like corn and cassava is OK though,” he said.

But a Lao customs official at the Boten gate told RFA that traffic at the border has improved, due to the reopening of another gate in a different province.

The recently opened $6 billion Lao-China Railway should help alleviate the border backup by reducing demand for truck freight. But most Lao goods cannot be shipped to China along the high-speed rail connecting the Lao capital Vientiane to China’s rail network, a Lao import-export expert who requested anonymity for safety reasons, told RFA.

“Only the Chinese goods are coming to Laos [via train]. We have to wait until the Lao goods are allowed,” he said.

Lao minerals, cassava and cassava powder are allowed in the cargo bays on the train, he said.

For those whose goods are in the clear, the railway has been great for business, a mineral exports worker told RFA.

“We ship our on the train to China every day,” he said. “We ship the freight in containers it takes no more than 30 hours to reach the destination. We’ve all switched to the railway to ship our products because it’s faster and cheaper.”

An official of the Lao Ministry of Industry and Trade explained that Laos was negotiating with China to open train freight to more types of Lao products.

“Of course, we want to ship more goods, especially agricultural products such as vegetables, bananas, watermelons and rubber by train to China. We don’t know how long the negotiation will last or when it will end,” the official said.

The Vientiane Times reported this week that the Lao government has promised to get more investment from China in an effort to boost exports.

Key to their strategy will be making the train available to Lao goods headed for China. The report said in the railway’s first 100 days, more than 360 cross-border trains transported 280,000 tons of freight to Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Bangladesh.

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