RANGOON — A group of Burmese NGOs on Thursday urged Burma and Thailand to address the complaints of local communities in southern Burma over a lack of adequate consultation and compensation during the initial phase of the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ).
The NGOs issued their statement during the first day of the official visit of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, whose government has announced that it wants to revive the massive Thai-Burmese project with Japanese help after it stalled late last year.
The Dawei Development Association (DDA), the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) and leading activist Kyaw Thu, the director of NGO consortium Paung Ku, said in a press release that Naypyidaw and Bangkok should resolve the farmers’ complaints before resuming the project.
They said any future project activities should adhere to international best practices for environmental standards and social protections.
“Local communities have not been provided with adequate information about the project. They have been forced off their land without fair or adequate compensation. There is also no remedy for those whose rights have been abused in the process so far. All of these problems must be resolved before the project restarts,” said Thant Zin, coordinator of DDA, a Dawei-based NGO.
The SEZ in Tenasserim Division’s Dawei District would be a massive billion-dollar project that includes a deep-sea port, heavy industries and extensive transport links. It would form a regional industrial hub located just 350 km west of Bangkok and allow cargo ships to dock in southern Burma and avoid the busy Strait of Malacca.
Thailand’s largest construction firm, Italian-Thai Development (ITD), was given leadership of the project in 2010. It began with confiscating and clearing land, and it constructed a small port and a road through the Tenasserim Hills that connects Dawei to Thailand.
ITD failed, however, to attract private investment to finance the project or to secure an agreement to build a power plant for the complex. ITD was taken off the project in late 2013 after reportedly having spent US$189 million on implementing the first project phase. Burma and Thailand have called on Japan, which is developing the Thilawa SEZ near Rangoon, to step in with funding and technical support to help revive the project.
Hundreds of farmers have already lost land to the project, but tens of thousands more would be required to give up farmland if the project resumes. The SEZ, which includes a huge coal-fired power plant, would also produce high levels of industrial pollution. Local communities are up in arms over these prospects and have complained of a dearth of project information and poor compensation offers for loss of land.
Ye Lin Myint, a member of DDA, said compensation procedures had so far been haphazard and lacked transparency as ITD and local authorities had forced farmers to accept different compensation agreements.
The NGOs called on Naypyidaw and Bangkok to release the findings of a due diligence assessment by international accounting firm Ernst & Young, which has reviewed ITD’s activities and investment during the project’s initial phase.
Ye Lin Myint said communities and NGOs wanted to compare what ITD told the accountants about how much it had paid in compensation with what the farmers on the ground had received for their loss of land.
“The due diligence assessment is said to have been sent to Naypyidaw. We would like to know what has been included. How much money is invested in which areas? We would like to know the inventory and what money as paid to the people,” he said during a press conference in Rangoon.
He said DDA believed there could be discrepancies between recorded payments and what farmers had received, which would be an indication of possible corruption.
The Burmese NGOs opposing the Dawei SEZ filed an official complaint about the project with Thailand’s Human Rights Commission last year and the activists are due to testify during a public hearing of the commission later this month.