For Myanmar nationals, ‘Friendship’ bridge a lifeline

At Thai-Myanmar border, quiet for now.
By Pimuk Rakkanam for RFA
2024.02.27
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A man walks over a Myanmar military post located beneath the Friendship Bridge connecting Myawaddy to Mae Sot, Thailand, Feb. 22, 2024. (Pimuk Rakkanam/RFA)

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Myanmar soldiers patrol under the Friendship Bridge. Feb. 22, 2024. (Pimuk Rakkanam/RFA)

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Myanmar youngsters look at their cellphones while sitting on the bank of the Moei river. Many young men swam across the river into Thailand a day earlier, locals told RFA, Feb. 22, 2024. (Pimuk Rakkanam/RFA)

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A Myanmar man walks across the Friendship Bridge linking Mae Sot to Myawaddy, Feb. 22, 2024. (Pimuk Rakkanam/RFA)

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A Karen schoolboy crosses a bridge that links the Myanmar village of Wa Lay to the Thai village of the same name, Feb. 22, 2024. (Pimuk Rakkanam/RFA)

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A Karen mother brings her children to Ban Wa Lay School as a Thai soldier keeps vigil on the Thai side of the bridge on Feb. 22, 2024. She says the school in Thailand is good and that speaking Thai is an advantage for her children. (Pimuk Rakkanam/RFA)

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A Buddhist novice sounds a gong to alert followers that senior monks are coming to collect morning alms, Feb. 22, 2024. (Pimuk Rakkanam/RFA)

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An elderly woman offers alms to senior monks in Myanmar’s Wa Lay village, Feb. 22, 2024. (Pimuk Rakkanam/RFA)

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A woman buys sweets from a Karen vendor on the Myanmar side of the border using Thai bank notes, Feb. 22, 2024. (Pimuk Rakkanam/RFA)

For Myanmar nationals, the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge spanning the Moei river has offered a crucial link for more than two decades. Every day, people cross from Myanmar’s Myawaddy township into Thailand’s Mae Sot for work, school, trade and healthcare. 

The bridge and its adjoining Asia Highway has been regularly impacted by the situation in Myanmar ever since it opened in 1997. When battles between the Myanmar military and the Karen National Liberation Army near the border, the bridge sometimes closes. Last January, the bridge reopened after three years of Covid-related closures only to temporarily close again months later amid fighting that has raged since the military government came to power in a 2021 coup. 

In December, border trade was halted once again. But in recent weeks, the conflict between the military and anti-junta forces has momentarily quieted at this border, and Myanmar nationals have begun crossing again.  

Others are taking alternative routes into the country, crossing the Moei river, or Thaung Yin as it is known in Myanmar, at a point near the bridge. The number is likely to rise in coming weeks as men and women flee a new military conscription drive. One such escapee told RFA they had no desire to kill someone from their own ethnic group. 

Thai authorities have been placing razor wires along the bank of the Moei to prevent such crossings — though the desperate are unlikely to be deterred by such efforts. 

About 38 miles (60 km) south of Mae Sot, a much smaller bridge links the Myanmar village of Wa Lay to a Thai village of the same name. 

Today, those living in the Karen community are able to enjoy a relative level of calm. It’s a marked difference from 2022, when Myanmar fighter jets and soldiers bombarded the area, burning homes and sending thousands fleeing. 

Edited by Abby Seiff.

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