My last post dealt with the rise and fall of the Mekong border ports in Chiang Khong. I mentioned that with changes in port regulation, there has been an emergence of a new type of local agent – the customs broker – working to facilitate the new regime of border trade. The role of these brokers seems to be increasing as more regulations are implemented.
Looking back at Andrew Walker’s The Legend of the Golden Boat, I found that it does not mention the customs brokers which today play a crucial role in facilitating cross-border trade, especially for Lao traders. It can be assumed that the customs brokers are a new type of agent that has emerged due to the need for trade facilitators in the more formalized system under the GMS regulations. Today the customs brokers not only prepare and process the trade-related documentation (making the cross-border trade more dexterous) but they are also a new agent who holds a lot of bargaining power in relation to both traders and state authorities. So we cannot ignore them in writing an updated legend of the Golden Boat.
The emergence of the customs brokers in Chiang Khong is a result of the formalization of cross-border trade dealings and practices. As one of the customs brokers mentioned to me, today cross-border trading seems to be harder than in previous times. Thai and Lao customs and immigration offices are doing their jobs under stricter regulatory measures. Transactions and movement of boats, people and cargo have to be made more formal and better documented. Such changes, even though they are claimed by GMS trade-related policy makers to promote subregional economic cooperation, make the business performance on the ground increasingly complicated. This is especially the case for local traders who are often not familiar with such formalized procedures and regulations. The role of the customs brokers therefore, fits into the widened gap between the traders and state authority bought about by the GMS trade regulation process.
The bridging position of the customs brokers between traders and officials is a concrete change in a rapid move toward subregionalization of trade. The former direct “cultural” relations between traders and state officials, as mentioned in the Golden Boat, are becoming less exploitable in certain contemporary circumstances. As stated by one of the customs brokers when I asked her (during dinner and, as usual, following drinks with two customs officials) why customs brokers are important these days: “because the cross-border activities today are becoming international-like”.