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Informal and Illegal Movement in the Upper Greater Mekong Subregion

Lynn Thiesmeyer


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1The mobility and re-location of trade routes and traders / transporters has rapidly increased in Southeast Asia, not only because of the globalisation of the last fifteen years, but now also because of the global financial crisis. This has brought about frequent re-location of production facilities as well as transport routes along the Upper GMS borders. It has also necessitated greater movement by individuals who are constantly searching for goods, materials, routes, and local markets and consumers.

2Unlike the recent past, this is no longer a question of agricultural products and workers going into China and manufactured goods and businessmen going out. Both goods and people now go in both directions. One particular focus here was on the kinds, functions, and quality of the new, cheap goods for rural and resource-poor consumers. The second issue was the differing standards for contents and materials along the GMS borders, making it difficult to determine what are hazardous or sub-standard goods. Third, and most importantly, the economic pressure to produce and to consume is running counter to the Agenda 21 principles of Sustainable Development in the region under discussion.

3ASEAN economic integration is scheduled to be completed in 2015. Does the new economic space of ASEAN integration conflict with the pre-existing micro-economic, socio-economic space of the traditionally flowing, mobile GMS? Given the diversity or absence of measures among different investors and stakeholders, there will be a need to focus in greater detail on employer and enterprise mobility and potentials.

4Thus contemporary border movement and trade in the Upper GMS falls into two parts: 1) the mobility and re-localisation of the spaces for the small enterprises that produce informal and illegal goods, their management and facilities, into the bounded space of ASEAN, including the geographical and cultural space of the low-educated, low-skilled populations who will be the consumers and the employees of such enterprises; and 2) the flow of intermediary small-scale traders, transporters, and start-ups in and out of the spaces of the skill-poor and resource-poor border community, acting as “faces” (in Lao, nai nâh) or mediators to both sides, the enterprise or distribution side and the lowest-level working side.

5This flow of persons, and of the goods, services, and production processes that they create, produce, or sell, crosses all borders within ASEAN and East Asia, often in informal or illegal ways. The formal inter-governmental policy target to address these issues is the ASEAN Regional (Economic) Integration by 2015 that is to include more realistic legal frameworks for regional labour movements, and with an emphasis on skills training across borders to generate a region-wide workforce that can ensure competitiveness. This promises to be quite costly, especially for the small enterprises and farmers who constitute the informal and illegal production, transport, and consumption of goods. In the current context of the necessity for informal and illegal cross-border trade, it is thus more likely that informal, illegal, and environmentally unsound practises will continue to grow along the GMS borders within the shadow of the formal and more costly ASEAN framework. Due to this, the ASEAN framework itself may result in excluding many of the lowest-skilled workers and the smallest enterprises and trade from its framework. It thus has the potential to drive further underground the production and trade practises that are unsafe for the environment and for human health.

6The Final Report of the Commission on Human Security emphasised that economic power is “the power to choose among opportunities” (Final Report, 72). But as we have seen, in the case of the transborder populations described in this paper, it is not opportunities, costs, and risks but deficits and losses among which many of them must choose. It is this condition that has not, in practical terms, allowed the reduction or eradication of border trafficking in illegal and hazardous goods—nor even the clear recognition among local populations of the hazards and harm they may cause. A system of enhanced knowledge and capacity, not only for the border dwellers, but for ourselves, which would underlie and generate a more realistic policy, might start with the idea of preserving and enhancing the quality of their multiple economic systems and economic relations on varying scales. It would also think of ways to create the opportunity for multiple economies to be “chosen among”.

© Institut de recherche sur l’Asie du Sud-Est contemporaine, 2010

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