RANGOON — An independent Japanese investigator has met with local communities displaced by the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ) to carry out an inquiry into a complaint filed by the villagers over the Japan-backed investment project near Rangoon.
On June 2, three residents filed a formal complaint under the objection procedures of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) over the compensation and relocation of 81 households who had to make way for the first 400-hectare phase of the Thilawa project.
Local NGO Thilawa Social Development Group and Japanese NGO Mekong Watch, which are supporting the complaint, said JICA Examiner for Guidelines Sachihiki Harashina visited Rangoon last week and met with Thilawa residents, NGOs, representatives of the Rangoon Division government and the Thilawa SEZ Management Committee.
A Mekong Watch spokesman said the inquiry would assess whether JICA had violated its own guidelines for environmental and social considerations during the project, and if it had facilitated proper dialogue between government and residents during forced resettlement.
JICA, Japan’s international aid body, has a 10 percent stake in the SEZ and offer technical support, while three Japanese companies hold 39 percent stake. The Burmese government and a joint venture of nine Burmese companies have invested the remaining 10 percent and 41 percent, respectively.
The Thilawa SEZ is Burma’s most advanced economic zone involving foreign investors, and it is at the center of Naypyidaw and Tokyo’s expanding political and economic relations.
Mekong Watch said it expected the first part of the examiner’s report to be publicly released and sent to the JICA president by September. “Mekong Watch will keep monitor the report by the examiner and how action are being taken in accordance with report [‘s recommendations],” the group said. “We mainly want the villagers to have living standards that are not lower than what they used to have” before relocation.
The complaint against JICA outlined damages occurred by villagers during the first project phase and the potential damage that is likely to happen during implementation of the next 2,000-hectare second phase.
“These damages included loss of farmland and access to farmland, loss of livelihood opportunities, impoverishment, loss of educational opportunities for the villagers’ children, substandard housing and basic infrastructure in the Myaing Tha Yar resettlement site and loss of access to clean water,” the NGOs have previously said of the complaint.
Local villagers told The Irrawaddy that after the complaint was filed there had been some positive developments.
“Some piles of brick and sand have been brought in to reconstruct the drainage system,” Aye Khaing Win, one of the relocated villagers, said during a press conference on Monday.
Villager Myint Myint Thein said authorities recently also built four new wells, but construction had been so poor that only one produced clean water. She added that toilets were full due to a lack of a proper sewage system, while the relocation site was also prone to flooding as it is a low-lying area.
The villagers stressed that they were seeking JICA’s support for long-term solutions to restore their livelihoods, which were lost after their farms were taken.
“Without land, our lives are dead,” villager Kyaw Kyaw said, adding that without the same amount of farmland the villagers could not reach income standards as before.
Villagers requested higher compensation for their loss of land during a July 8 meeting with the Thilawa SEZ Management Committee, the Rangoon Divisional government and the Thilawa Social Development Group.
The displaced Thilawa residents expect to have a meeting with the Rangoon government and JICA next month.
Villagers have said that the only received compensation for the loss of six years’ worth of harvests and that no money was paid for the land, the value of which had risen sharply in recent years.
Authorities have argued that the land was already confiscated by the military regime during the 1990s and that villagers were compensated. The communities have said they received a paltry compensation sum at the time.
Lawyer Myint Thwin, who provides legal counsel to displaced villagers, took issue with the authorities’ claims, saying that the 1990s confiscation did not comply with Burma’s laws at the time.
He said farmers were still forced to pay land ownership taxes until 2012, and that a new notification of land confiscation was issued in 2013.
“That means they haven’t confiscated the land. So they have to negotiate to compensate for taking the land,” Myint Thwin said. “I like to request the government to compensate them according to the law.”