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FEATURE-Tiny Indo-Myanmar free trade zone thrives
10:04 p.m. May 25, 1999 Eastern
By Masako Iijima
NAMPHALONG, Myanmar, May 26 (Reuters) - Every day,
buses and cars from the northeastern Indian city of
Imphal labour up the hilly, final stretch of India's
National Highway 39 to the Myanmar border.
They drive 110 km (68 miles) to take hundreds of
traders and shoppers to Namphalong market on the
Myanmar side of the free trade zone straddling the two
There, they can buy everything from colourful plastic
bowls and cans of Coca-Cola made in Thailand to car
batteries and pocket radios.
``The free trade zone is very important for Manipur
because it is the state's largest trading centre,''
says P.C. Lawmkunga, commissioner of industries and
commerce for the state of Manipur.
``The prices there are very reasonable. Woollen
blankets, for example, are much cheaper than in
Between December 1995 and September 1997, about 991
million rupees ($23.2 million) worth of goods were
traded here, with the balance tilting slightly in
favour of Indian exports.
``There is only one gate now. We are planning to open
a second gate at the border in three or four months to
increase trade,'' Lawmkunga said.
CLOSER TO BANGKOK THAN NEW DELHI
The remote state of Manipur is one of the northeastern
``seven sister'' states linked to the rest of India by
a narrow strip of land, sandwiched between Bangladesh
Manipur, with a population of about two million, is
closer to Bangkok than it is to New Delhi, some 1,400
km (870 miles) away.
Most of the population engages in agriculture and the
state can feed itself. But economic development in
landlocked Manipur has lagged behind that of most
other states because of inadequate communications,
difficult terrain and political unrest.
Shops in the state capital of Imphal stock all the
usual household necessities, such as soap and
toothpaste, but it takes time for new products to come
``We basically have everything, but sometimes when
supplies of things which are not in great demand run
out, it takes a while for the next batch to come,''
says one Imphal shopkeeper.
The railroad does not come to Manipur, and goods such
as water storage tanks and Indian commodities arrive
strapped on top of buses.
The vehicles are escorted by army convoys as the
highway from the neighbouring state of Assam winds its
way through hills infested with separatist militants.
ASIAN GOODS GALORE
``I come to Namphalong three times a month to stock up
on food,'' says Bila Sini Devi, a trader from southern
Manipur. ``There is more variety here than in Imphal
and it's much cheaper.''
India and Myanmar signed an agreement to form a free
trade zone in 1994. One hundred Indian rupees is
equivalent to 700 kyat at the border market, which is
open from dawn to dusk.
Most of India's exports to Myanmar are medicines,
spices and textiles, while its imports are mainly
food, electronic goods and garments.
Dozens of tiny, crammed stalls managed by Myanmar
nationals and Nepali merchants spread out under a tin
roof near the border checkpost. Numerous cafes have
also sprung up in one corner of the market to cater to
hungry vendors and buyers.
``The most popular item is this pocket radio,'' says
one Myanmar merchant, holding up a cigarette box-sized
radio marked with the brand name ``Sunny.''
``They are 230 rupees ($5.42) each, come in boxes of
50 and on a good day, I sell a couple of boxes to
Indian traders,'' he says. ``Most of the business is
done in bulk.''
Around him there are clean, new boxes of television
sets, car stereos and tape recorders.
``Most of the things come from China, but some come
from Singapore and Malaysia,'' he says.
The goods, which move from Namphalong to Moreh, the
town on the Indian side of the border, are then sold
at a clutch of shops in Imphal known as the Moreh
Locals say goods at the Imphal market are about 10
percent cheaper than those sold in New Delhi or other
parts of India.
TRADE CENTRE SHIFTING
Long before the Namphalong market opened, Moreh was
the centre of border trade. Everything, from silk
thread for Manipur's many handlooms to high-quality
heroin, was smuggled through the town.
People from all over India flocked to the town to make
their fortunes, giving birth to numerous hotels and
Many Tamil traders from southern India, wearing
blue-checked sarongs and thongs, still saunter up and
down the dusty, main street. But they say business is
not what it used to be.
Shops are closing down and Moreh is changing from an
unofficial trading centre into a bus depot for
``Now there are only about 3,500 Tamils in Moreh.
There used to be double the number before the border
opened,'' says Kambo Madrasi, a Tamil cigarette shop
owner. ``Business is getting worse day by day. Maybe
it's time to go home.''
($1 - 42.4 rupees)
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