RANGOON — Japanese NGO Mekong Watch claims that the Burmese government and private project developers have failed to comply with Japanese government guidelines during the resettlement process of dozens of farmers who lived in the planned Thilawa Special Economic Zone.
Mekong Watch said the compensation of 68 affected families in Rangoon Division’s Thanlyin Township had violated guidelines on environmental and social considerations of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The development agency is building infrastructure for Thilawa SEZ, which is being supported by Japan.
“So far, the developers and the government have failed to comply with the several provisions of JICA’s guidelines. And also, JICA has failed to make the [Burmese] government follow the guidelines,” Mekong Watch told The Irrawaddy in a statement.
Mekong Watch is a Tokyo-based NGO that monitors the impact of Japanese investment projects in Southeast Asia.
The 68 families were forced to make way for the construction of the first 400-hectare phase of the 2,400-hectare Thilawa SEZ, which began two months ago. In September, they had signed agreements accepting the government’s compensation offer of six years’ worth of harvests and a roughly 60 square meter plot of land.
Later, however, the farmers complained that they signed the agreement under duress, a claim that was supported by local NGO Thilawa Social Development Group and Mekong Watch. The small rice farmers said they should have received more than $30,000 per acre compensation for loss of farmland.
Farmer Aung Zin Oo said he was given a small plot of land and about $2,500 in compensation for six years of harvest of a 0.6-acre paddy field and an additional $800 to cover his cost of moving and the loss of several fruit trees.
“They gave us compensation in three installments, and most us have been paid for housing and relocation by November 19,” he said, adding that he wanted more money for the resettlement.
The disagreement between the farmers and the government stems from events in the 1990s, when the then military government confiscated land of hundreds of farmers with little or no compensation in order to create an industrial zone.
The plan failed to take off and farmers resumed cultivating the confiscated lands. When the plans were revived with the support of the Japanese government last year local land prices skyrocketed.
The small-scale rice farmers said they owned the land and should be compensated at the level of the soaring land prices. The government rejected farmers’ land rights claims and only offered compensation for loss of future harvests, fruit trees and costs of moving.
Mekong Watch said the government had “rushed the process of resettlement/compensation.” The NGO said the government had failed to compensate the farmers with a sufficient amount of productive land and that the farmers were at risk of experiencing a drop in living standards.
It claims that the current compensation arrangement violates JICA guidelines stipulating that governments hosting Japanese public investment should ensure that affected people “improve their standard of living, income opportunities, and production levels, or at least to restore these to pre-project levels.”
Mekong Watch said JICA should engage with local communities “to listen to their voices, given that most of the local people are still afraid to raise
their concerns or are actually not aware of their rights.”
Asked if the farmers were demanding too much compensation at $30,000 per acre, Thilawa Social Development Group member Mya Hlaing said, “I believe that this is in keeping with the current market prices of land at Thilawa.”
“If the government doesn’t want to give this amount they can bargain with the farmers,” he added.
The government is responsible for resettlement and compensation and officials have dismissed farmers’ complaints, saying that they had followed World Bank and JICA guidelines.
“People can come and talk with us any time, if they think we are not following JICA policy. But no one comes to explain which facts are not in line with JICA policy,” said Mie Mie Aung, a member of the Thilawa SEZ Management Committee.
Thilawa SEZ is being planned the Burmese and Japanese governments, together with a consortium of Japanese firms and the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
The sprawling complex, located about 25 km south of Rangoon, will include a deep sea port, Japanese factories, and large housing projects. The Burmese side owns 51 percent of the project and is responsible for developing the 2,400-hectare core zone.
This story was corrected on December 9, 2013 as Mekong Watch did not say it supported the farmers’ demand for $30,000 per acre. The group said the government should improve the farmers’ land compensation offer.