RANGOON — Representatives of villagers being relocated to make way for the Thilawa Special Economic Zone on Tuesday met with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to discuss the ongoing dispute with the Rangoon government over compensation.
With work on the deep-sea port, industrial zone and residential project slated to begin at the end of the month, representatives of those being moved to make way for the development last week claimed they were coerced into accepting compensation by the authorities.
All but three families from a first group to be relocated agreed to compensation at the end of September. However, representatives maintain they were pressured into signing agreements and had little opportunity to negotiate. The Rangoon Regional Government has denied the allegations.
Representatives of both the initial group of Thilawa residents being relocated and more families slated to be evicted at a later date expressed their concerns to JICA—which is developing the infrastructure for the Japan-funded project. Notoriously tight-lipped, JICA insisted that the meeting be off-limits to the media and declined to comment on what was discussed.
According to villagers at the meeting, JICA was sympathetic to their plight and said they would present their demands to the government. “JICA didn’t promise anything, but they listened very carefully,” said village representative Aung Ko Min.
Another representative, Soe Thein, said he told JICA the government must be more transparent, provide ample time for negotiations, and, most importantly, properly compensate villagers for the loss of their land.
The villagers also asked the government to provide paper deeds for the new land to avoid future problems, differentiate between long-term residents and newcomers and for an end to police monitoring in the area.
Construction on a relocation site for Thilawa residents started only this week, according to Set Aung, an economic adviser to President Thein Sein and chairman of the Thilawa Special Economic Zone Management Committee.
Set Aung also told The Irrawaddy that residents who have already signed may be eligible for increased compensation if the regional government agrees to better terms with other villagers.
However, villagers have not been given copies of their compensation agreements, and the government has so far not made them publicly available.
Set Aung said the government side was working to communicate better with the public about the project, and that he will be in Rangoon next week to hold meetings with the villagers, JICA, as well as relevant NGOs.
“My plan has always been to have very strong collaboration with all the stakeholders to come up with a much better, win-win solution,” he said.
Thilawa was originally marked for development in the mid-1990s. The military junta gave most residents 20,000 kyat (roughly $20) for each acre of land, effectively confiscating it. The project never materialized and the residents remained on the land, but the regional government claims it legally owns the deeds to the land.
The Thilawa Special Economic Zone is one of Japan’s flagship investment projects in the Southeast Asia. A public joint venture company, expected to be called the Thilawa Development Holding Company will eventually be set up to manage the project.