Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Shan Women Traders and Their Survival Strategies on the Myanmar-Thailand Borderland

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Shan Women Traders and Their Survival Strategies on the Myanmar-Thailand Borderland

Article excerpt

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. …

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