Transparency and accountability are crucial to ensure the Dawei (Tavoy) deep-sea port project in southern Burma does not adversely affect local people or the environment, claim human rights activists.
The US $8.6 billion project has been on shaky ground recently with Naypyidaw blocking a coal-fueled power plant in January and major investor Max Myanmar pulling out earlier this month, but the signing of three memoranda of understanding (MoUs) between Thailand and Burma has put the scheme firmly back on track.
The agreements took place when Burmese President Thein Sein met Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Bangkok this week, but people living around Dawei have complained that their views are still not being take into account.
“To have transparency and accountability are very important. It is not a matter of national security to let us know what is happening,” Thant Zin, a coordinator for the Dawei Development Association (DDA), told The Irrawaddy at a conference in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, on Thursday.
“Even in our small organization, we let people know what we are doing. The Dawei project is huge and it is going to displace 30,000 people where they build the special economic zone. The government should let us know what is in the agreement.”
Photos of the natural landscape, beaches and wildlife were shown at the conference which was attended by more than 300 people. Activists also posted photos of the devastation caused by the scheme and how much the environment was due to suffer from construction work.
“If our president respects our people, he will not destroy our livelihoods and environment,” said Ko Lay Lwin, another coordinator of DDA. Development should mean helping the prospects of local people first rather setting up a foreign-backed project that will ruin their livelihoods, he added.
Activists said that instead of allowing Italian-Thai Development (ITD), Thailand’s largest construction firm, to build Dawei, the Burmese government should implement a local project instead.
Residents also complained that Dawei is a project which Thailand would not permit on its own soil. The scheme is due to contain a huge petrochemicals center similar to the controversial Map Ta Phut plant, in Thailand’s Rayong Province, which exploded in May claiming 12 lives.
“We feel like Map Ta Phut is a toilet from Thailand that came to settle in our Dawei,” said Ko Lay Lwin.
ITD intends to construct a special economic zone by Nabule village in Dawei as part if the megaproject which involves displacing local people from 50,536 acres of land.
“Without Nabuledaw, there will be no Dawei. This is how the people are feeling,” said Ko Lay Lwin. “If the project forces people to leave their homes, there will be a strong reaction.”
Activists called on the Burmese government to talk directly to local people about the project and warned that tempers were becoming frayed over the unfair compensation being offered by the local authorities for land being used.
“There is no reason to blame local people if some violence came out or they attack the project as the government has no transparency or accountability,” said Thant Zin.
ITD is not offering equal compensation to local people affected by the construction work, according to rights activists. While Karen people on the east side of the project were reportedly paid 300,000 kyat ($340) per rubber tree lost, those who stay on the west side only receive 150,000 kyat ($170).
ITD was first granted a 75-year concession to use land for Dawei in a deal struck with the Burmese government in 2008. Thailand then approved a 33.1 billion baht ($1.1 billion) budget for infrastructure to link up with the project in May.
However, things have not all gone smoothly as ITD was already thought to be struggling to find financial backing for the 250-square-kilometre complex that was planned to include a deep-sea port, steel mills, refineries, a petrochemical complex and power plants. These financial woes were exacerbated by the loss of Max Myanmar which was due to contribute 25 percent of capital, with 50 percent coming from ITD.