Every day hundreds of illegal Chinese motorcycles are smuggled across Burma’s northern Shan State border with China’s Yunnan Province, according to border sources.
“Hundreds of motorcycles pass by o***n the road in front of my house every day,” said an elder resident of Namhputka, a small town near the Chinese border. “This is not the o***nly route—other smugglers use other ways outside of Namhputka.”
Chinese motorbikes are bought in Ruili, a southern Yunnan border town, at prices between 400,000 to 600,000 kyat (US $320 to $480) depending o***n the type of motorcycle. They are then illegally driven into Burma and resold with an add-on price of 50,000 to 100,000 kyat ($40 to $80) each, depending o***n how far a motorcycle is driven into the country.
Motorcycles are also illegally transported by boat o***n the Shweli River near the Burmese border town of Muse, opposite Ruili, according to sources.
Many smugglers bypass checkpoints at night and then bribe their way down the Muse-Lashio-Mandalay road.
Motorcycles from China are replacing the o***nce-popular Japanese brands, such as Honda and Yamaha, not o***nly in upper Burma but also in central Burma, especially in cities such as Mandalay.
Price is a major factor—an illegal Chinese Luojia or Kenbo motorcycle sells for between 580,000 to 600,000 kyat (about $470), whereas a legally imported, licensed motorcycle of the same model sells for more than 1million kyat ($800). A Suzuki motorcycle assembled at the Japanese company’s plant in Mandalay goes for between 1 million to 3 million kyat.
The motorcycle smuggling business is also a lucrative source of income for corrupt government officials at highway checkpoints who demand bribes from smugglers.
Numerous checkpoints lie between Muse and Mandalay. Besides the government, ethnic paramilitary militia groups in northern Shan State and ceasefire groups also demand "transit fees" when smugglers enter and leave their controlled areas.
“In China, we can buy a Luojia for 500,000 kyat ($400)," said Brang Awng, a Kachin motorcycle smuggler who travels to Lashio and Mandalay to sell cycles.
"We can resell it in Lashio for about 550,000 kyat ($440) and in Mandalay for about 580,000 kyat ($470). But, overall we have to bribe authorities along the way—everything depends o***n the situation.”
Motorcycle smuggling began about a decade ago. Now, even high school students become involved in the business to earn school fees. Smugglers earn a quick profit, but they face the threat of robbery by gangs and ambushes by armed troops, said Brang Awng, who makes smuggling runs about twice a week.
Sometimes police shoot at smugglers. “One day we tried to bypass a checkpoint, but when we reappeared o***n the road the police followed us and just before they lost us, they shot at us.”
At least ten smugglers have died in shooting incidents over the past few years, sources say.
“Everyone knows smuggling is very dangerous, but most people do it because they have no other choice to earn a living,” said a Muse-based elder resident whose two sons are involved in smuggling.
“If you work with a hoe o***n a farm, you earn 2,000 kyat ($1.50) a day. But in this business, it is like you risk your life and get 5,000 kyat ($4).
"Life is not important here,” he said.
Quick profits are also a lure into other areas of criminal activity. Many motorcycle smugglers double-up and also carry illegal goods for traders while driving the illegal bikes.
“In order to earn more profit, we serve as carriers for businessmen," said the Muse resident. "Sometimes we don’t know what we are carrying. Sometimes it's very heavy, but the owners of the goods do not let us open the pack.”