Myanmar and Thailand have reopened a major border crossing after a three-year hiatus.
The Myawaddy-Mae Sot Friendship Bridge, which connects Thailand’s western Tak province with Kayin state’s Myawaddy township in Myanmar’s east, resumed operations on Thursday for the first time since 2020, when the two countries closed their borders due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Several Thai and Myanmar officials met on the bridge at 7:30 Thursday morning for a reopening ceremony. Traffic across the bridge formally reopened at 8:30, according to the Myanmar National Portal website.
A resident who attended the event told RFA’s Burmese Service that hundreds of people from both sides came to watch.
Nay Win, who was the first person to enter Thailand through the bridge on Thursday, said he was given a seven-day border pass to stay in the country after submitting his COVID-19 vaccination record, and 3,000 kyat (U.S.$1.43).
“I am happy [to be back],” he said.
The reopening of the land border is expected to benefit the economy for both countries.
“The important thing is that trade, education and healthcare will improve,” said Thin Thin Myat, the president of the Thai-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce.
She said that there will be health centers to check for COVID at the entrance and exit of the two countries. Those who can show the proper documentation will be allowed to visit the other side for seven days.
The reopening is good for the people of Myanmar, according to Htoo Chit, a Myanmar labor rights advocate in Thailand.
“During the closure, the migrants and visitors had to pay more than ten times the regular fees in order to come to Thailand,” said Htoo Chit. “Some had to enter illegally and ended up arrested, in jail or deported. Now they can come legally and officially.”
A total of 786 border crossings occurred on the first day of reopening, with 40 Thais and 300 Burmese departing Thailand across the bridge, and 35 Thais and 411 Burmese entering Thailand, according to Thai immigration statistics.
Since the military coup in Myanmar, the Thai-Myanmar border town of Myawaddy has seen frequent bombings. On the night of Oct. 15, 2022, a bomb exploded near the Myawaddy-Mae Sot bridge and at least two cars were destroyed by fire.
The long-anticipated reopening was originally announced for May 1, 2022, but was repeatedly delayed.
Before the bridge reopening, some workers and goods were able to pass through a second Thai-Myanmar bridge roughly 8 kilometers (5 miles) north under an agreement that sought to bolster Thailand’s labor market with workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
However, advocacy groups said high fees from brokers to arrange paperwork for the process meant it was an insufficient opportunity for the masses looking for a stable income in the lagging economy.
Those unable to wait for the reopening were left to come through irregular routes across the 2,400 kilometer border, often with the aid of brokers.
Moe Kyaw of the Joint Action Committee for Burmese Affairs says creating more legal migration paths can help reduce risk and leave fewer people open to abuses.
Of the four permanent land borders, the only other open checkpoint is further south in Kawthaung, Myanmar. However, only locals with passes and access to a boat can legally come into Thailand.
Myanmar citizens living in Mae Sot see the border reopening not as an economic boon but as a chance to connect with loved ones they’ve been separated from.
Samuel, who came to the opening ceremony on the Thai side, and asked to go by his first name only, has been watching preparations for the opening all week. Although he expects to stay in Thailand because of the coup, now he can at least visit his home country.
“It will bring more convenience for Burmese people,” Samuel said. “I’m trying to go to Myawaddy just to meet my friend.”
Translated by Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.