In my last post I discussed the decline of Chiang Khong’s Wat Luang port and the Wat Luang Boat Operators’ Association. How can we understand such change in the context of the subregional development of river trade? First, the large long-distance Lao cargo boats that cross the river to load at Chiang Khong do not conform to the regulation of the Association anymore. The power of “micro-regulation”, that Walker discussed, has now turned to the state-run Port Authority at a new deep-water port (above) with the regulations determined by its head office in Bangkok.
Prior to the completion of the new port, the Wat Luang boat operators already had some concerns. As Walker described in The Golden Boat, the operators were concerned that the future relocation to the new port may bring them into conflict with rival cross-river boat operators. Some, according to Walker, “reassured themselves with the thought that the new port would serve only the anticipated river trade with China and that relatively small-scale Thai-Lao trade would continue to pass through Wat Luang’s port.” However, what they could not foresee at that time, (and this was not mentioned in The Golden Boat) was that the power of border regulation would alter and shift from their hands. For the Lao and Chinese boats today, to moor or not to moor at the Wat Luang port is determined by the Port Authority’s decision and not the former monopoly-holding Wat Luang Boat Operators’ Association.
Though the regulating activities of border trade are no longer in the hands of local frontier authorities and may, to a greater extent, shift to a new regime of subregional development agencies, a period of readjustment has been occurring. This is characterized by stricter, rather than more lenient, state regulation. And, no doubt, new forms of collaboration could emerge. It is during this crucial time that we see the arrival of another new local agent deploying the changing pattern of trade into a more formal style to their significant benefit. That new agent is a local customs broker which will be discussed in my next post.