Burma, Thailand Renew Vows to Resume Dawei SEZ

By Nobel Zaw 10 October 2014

RANGOON — Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha met with Burma’s President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw on Thursday, when the two military-turned-civilian leaders agreed once more to restart the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) project.

No timeframe for the project has been set, but the president’s spokesperson, Minister of Information Ye Htut, told The Irrawaddy that it will resume “as soon as possible.”

“The timeframe to restart the project was not discussed during the ministerial meeting,” he said, adding that the president wishes to “reduce the steps” necessary to get things back on track.

The billion-dollar project, planned for an undeveloped seaside area in Tenasserim Division, was envisioned as a port, industrial complex and transit hub that would connect Burma’s southeastern coast with Thailand’s eastern seaboard and capital city, Bangkok.

The Dawei SEZ has seen a series of setbacks largely due to the initial managing contractor’s failure to secure private investors. Thailand’s largest construction firm, Italian-Thai Development (ITD), was taken off the project in late 2013 after reportedly spending about US$189 million on just the project’s first phase.

Both the Thai and Burmese governments have begun courting Japan as a potential investment partner. Japan is also developing a major port and industrial zone at Thilawa in Rangoon Division.

The Dawei development was a major agenda item in talks between Prayuth and Japan’s Vice-Foreign Minister Minoro Kiuchi in Bangkok on Oct. 2, according to Reuters, citing a spokesperson of the Thai junta.

In addition to—and perhaps exacerbating—the difficulties of securing investors, the project has seen major public outcry over land rights violations and lack of community consultation.

Coinciding with the meeting on Thursday, a group of community-based groups and local activists issued a damning public press statement urging the Burmese and Thai governments to directly address the complaints of affected farmers before proceeding with the project, and to only resume after settling grievances and demonstrating commitment to international best practices.

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, all signed off on the statement. DDA Director Thant Zin implored both governments “to solve the existing problems and take lessons from them, and think about the best way to proceed.”

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Friday, presidential spokesperson Ye Htut responded that: “The government has organized a committee to solve land rights problems. Some people didn’t own the land, started growing trees on it to increase the value, then asked for more money that isn’t theirs. We had to pay the people who deserved compensation; we will deal with the opportunists according to the law.”

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.