Cashing in across the Golden Triangle: Thailand's Northern Border Trade with China, Laos, and Myanmar

By Curry, Robert L. | Journal of Southeast Asian Economies, August 2012 | Go to article overview

Cashing in across the Golden Triangle: Thailand's Northern Border Trade with China, Laos, and Myanmar


Curry, Robert L., Journal of Southeast Asian Economies


DOI: 10.1355/ae29-2f

Cashing In Across the Golden Triangle: Thailand's Northern Border Trade with China, Laos, and Myanmar. By Thein Swe and Paul Chambers. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Mekong Press, 2011. Pp.xx, 212.

The book tells the story of how an emerging fourcountry, cross-border natural economic territory transformed the Golden Triangle, once no more than a lawless drug trafficking frontier into an example of flourishing regional economic cooperation. Natural refers to the mosaic of vertically and horizontally integrated markets that cross national borders within the territory. The volume that analyses this transformation is the result of a confluence involving a first-rate publisher and two quality co-authors. Mekong Press was initiated in 2005 by Silkworm Books with financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Silkworm is a publisher of note when it comes to socioeconomic, political and cultural issues centring on the northern regions of Thailand and the crossborders to which they connect. Co-authors Thein Swe and Paul Chambers occupy faculty positions at the South East Asian Institute of Global Studies at Chiang Mai's Payap University.

From the outset the co-authors write with the realization that many of their readers have a limited understanding of the region's geography, economic and political structures as well as the production, finance, trade and human migration patterns and linkages that continue to form. They write both to this audience and to other readers who are well informed about the enormous regional changes that are taking place - including the costs and benefits to which they give rise.

The book's early chapters focus on the substantive nature of the transformation, particularly in Northern Thailand which plays a major role in the development of new patterns of production, distribution, labour migration, tourism, border trade and finance. They point out that tourism is in the process of becoming an ever more prominent economic sector. In support of these activities new and rejuvenated infrastructure facilities are being put into place in transportation (including roads, bridges and rail transportation), communication (namely land-based and wireless phones) and energy availability including from fourteen Chinese hydropower dams constructed and operating along the Upper Mekong.

As patterns of cross-border trade in goods and services continue to evolve they lead to transport corridors that in turn facilitate the growth of retail and wholesale establishments located along the way; that is, transport corridors both facilitate and generate economic activity. This helps cities to grow, and the Northern Thailand town of Mae Sai is a good example of this aspect of the region's dynamism. It is a town of 60,000 that now boasts an array of retailers and wholesalers, a nearby casino complex to attract visitors and it is a strategic border crossing point into Myanmar. The Asian Highway Network works its way through Mae Sai on its way to other market towns within the economic territory.

It is a burgeoning and exciting place and Swe and Chambers capture this phenomenon vividly. Not only do they analyse the positive aspects of the territories' economic expansion (for example, in terms of productivity, production, employment and income generation) but they also analyse some of the problems that have arisen. For example, there are strategic and reliability issues due to distances between facilities leading to transportation constraints. Equitable water access and energy sharing remain a political challenge. The hydro power dams on the Upper Mekong "as well as increasingly longer dry seasons have caused a decrease in Mekong water levels, making river commerce more difficult" (p. 104). In addition, growth based upon the cashing in process is uneven with some residents of the region "left behind", including cross-border migrants many of whom settled in the Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai/Mae Sai part of Northern Thailand. …

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