In Person

Myanmar’s Rakhine Sees No Benefit From Major Projects: MP

By Nyein Nyein 22 October 2019

The government plans to build a special economic zone in Kyaukphyu on the island of Ramree in Rakhine State.

The township also has the Myanmar-China crude oil and natural gas pipeline projects. The Irrawaddy talked to U Kyaw Lwin, who represents Kyaukphyu in the state parliament as vice chairman of the newly formed Arakan Front Party.

Nyein Nyein: A special economic zone (SEZ) is planned for Kyaukphyu where you already have the oil and gas pipelines and crude oil storage tanks next to the Maday port and the Shwe gas terminal in Kyaukphyu. What changes have these projects brought to residents?

U Kyaw Lwin: The SEZ and the pipelines are not bringing any benefits. Residents lost their land because of the pipelines. There are no jobs and no opportunities to do business with the projects.

Work on the pipelines started in 2010. After almost 10 years, has there been increased development?

I became a parliamentarian in 2010. People were hopeful they could get construction jobs. But no jobs or opportunities came to residents. Incomers from central Myanmar got the jobs.

Maday or Made is famous as an island with a deep port. What is the impact of that project on your constituency?

There is no positive change for Maday. Access to the land is off-limits to islanders and they cannot work near those areas. We see some support from businesses on Maday for road improvements but it is not enough.

The onshore gas terminal in Kyaukphyu, Rakhine State. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

What else do residents lose?

Some people say they get money from selling their land but I don’t see that as an advantage. They have lost their land and we will see if they can make a regular income from selling fish or something else.

The problem started in 2010 when the gas pipeline work began and the land problems started. Residents only have the land-tenure licenses for their farmland, not for their orchards, which are usually regarded as vacant and virgin land.

When the government’s land department arrived along the chosen pipeline route they asked villagers to show their property documents.

In Rakhine State, no one has the government grant-land tenure paperwork for their land in forests and on hillsides. But they were not able to apply for the land tenure license. The villagers only had their orchards as proof.

They were told their land was being confiscated. After the talks, there were some offers of compensation. 

The Naypyitaw government talks about awareness of the 2018 Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Law. Your farming constituents have lost their land before. What is their current situation and how can they register their land?

The Union government is giving instructions all the time. But there is no change on the ground and people do not know about the changes. Even though people apply for the registration of farmland, the land department is not quick enough.

The farmers know that they have to register their land but the department will delay without excuses when applications are made.

U Kyaw Lwin, the Rakhine State parliamentarian from Kyaukphyu and the vice chairman of the Arakan Front Party. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

They cannot apply if their land is within 30 meters of the pipeline because the department cannot visit the areas. It will not give permits near the SEZ either.

When land was taken for the pipelines, the farmers growing orchards received compensation, but not for their ironwood trees. They were cut down for the pipelines.

Kyaukphyu farmers are concerned about whether their land will be seized if the SEZ is built. They want to know when the SEZ will actually start. As a parliamentarian, are you given details about when work on the SEZ is due to begin?

No. Even though I am a state parliamentarian, I was not invited to any meeting related to the SEZ plan. There were rumors that I was objecting to the project and maybe that’s why they don’t want to invite me.

If the SEZ is built, will there be any benefits?

There are none because there is no transparency. To be transparent, they must announce how many villages will be in the project and how they will be paid compensation for their land. There must be plans to resettle farmers and restore their income. The companies and the government must provide support for education and social help.

We want to know what kind of SEZ it will be. I used to work in an SEZ in Malaysia in a factory producing vehicle tanks. They used acid to clean and then it was dumped in the river and trees died beside the water.

If residents do not agree on compensation being offered, there must be negotiations. There must be more consultation with residents.

A crude oil tanker docks at Maday Island. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

The Rakhine State fishing sector is in decline. Maday fishermen say catching fish gets harder each day. They say they cannot catch fish when oil tankers come to port around every two weeks. What is their future?

When the pipeline projects were signed, the company took the rights to use the area. It is the same for the deep-sea port. They clear the route for ships. There is a 30-year lease and fishermen no longer have rights.

It is already over. It is hard for us to say anything as the government and companies already have their agreements.

The SEZ will be the same. Even if the government wants to enter the areas, it has to ask permission. We already have that experience on Maday, as they have their own security system.

What is the impact on the fisheries sector in Rakhine State?

The government has the main responsibility for the lack of fish. When the government shared its policies with the state parliament, it described a policy to preserve the environment and mangrove forests, but it is just a policy and it did not have an adequate budget.

Is there a budget to preserve the mangrove forests?

There is none. The government says Rakhine State’s primary produce is agricultural. It develops policies to boost the farming sector, but it does not have any plan or budget to help those farmers.

Policies should not be just on paper and they need a budget to implement policies. There is no action to maintain the environment and to protect marine life.

Can Parliament push for development?

Under the Union Solidarity and Development Party government in 2010, development was not as fast as we had expected. On Myoe Chaung and Mrasike islands, we did not have roads. Now we have more than 30 kilometers of roads.

How about since 2016 under the National League for Democracy?

In the fiscal year 2016-17, there was not much development because the Rakhine State government was not able to implement reforms. It was hesitant and indecisive. Since then roads have been built.

A signpost warning about the pipelines in Kyaukphyu. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

The Rakhine State government cannot do what it wants because the chair of the committee on Rakhine State development and rule of law is [State Counselor] Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Whenever the chief minister wants to do something, he has to ask Naypyitaw. Too much control hampers development.

For instance, if I identify an issue, my request has to go through one or two offices before it gets to someone with authority and I have to wait until I get permission. There are long delays.

Is Kyaukphyu affected by the Rakhine State conflict?

Ramee is a separate island that can only be accessed by one road from Ann Township. There are three naval bases: Thit Poke Taung, Ohn Choin and another near Sane.

The ethnic armed groups are unlikely to use the island so the area is currently free from fighting. 

In Kyaukphyu, food, transport and other services are expensive. Why?

It is because of the pipeline projects. There were Chinese and Indian workers who worked on the construction. People sold them items at higher prices. After they returned, the commodity prices did not fall. 

Do you have any plans to stop young residents leaving?

There is no action plan and any policy would not be implemented. The government cannot provide jobs for them. There is not a single factory in the whole of Rakhine State. There are no jobs. People are told to grow vegetables but we don’t have markets to sell them in. I used to grow green beans but when the crops were harvested, we had nowhere to sell them.

Even if the SEZ created jobs, who would come back to work under the current laws? The minimum wage is 4,800 kyats [a day] or less than 150,000 kyats per month.

In Thailand and Malaysia, they earn at least 300,000 to 500,000 kyats. So they will not come back to work for the minimum wage.

Is there work preparing fish and shrimp?

We have plenty of marine resources but we don’t have trading partners. Even though the government talks about free trade, we cannot trade directly with India and Bangladesh.

Our shrimp were due to be exported to Singapore but we have to connect with the traders in central Myanmar. But they do not buy directly from us. They have their own commissioned buyers. So Rakhine suppliers are paid less and other traders in the middle earn the profit. Therefore, fishermen have left for foreign countries in search of jobs.

Most fishermen are now older people who cannot leave the country. Almost all the young people have gone. The fishing work is only for about a quarter of the year but they have to keep a constant eye on the boats.

Do boats from other countries fish off the Rakhine coast?

The destruction of the environment and extinction of fish is not due to our people.

I have seen big fishing ships in those areas at night.

The government does not protect maritime territory. There was an abandoned ship on the coast in Ayeyarwady Region that no one knew about. If the navy cannot protect the coast in central Myanmar, imagine how much worse it is off Rakhine State. Thai and Malaysian fishing boats conduct unauthorized fishing. We catch fish on a small scale.

Who should people ask for help?

We have to depend on ourselves, like our Buddha Dhamma teaching. Money paid in compensation was stolen from a Ka Paing Chaung villager by a Land Department official. In 2012-13 she was paid compensation, which was stolen while she was on a boat. She went to the court to sue the official but the case was not accepted. The court did not even investigate her claims. How can people trust the authorities in this country?

The government is planning the Maday SEZ. What can be done to ensure residents’ rights?

The land problems must be solved first and there must be discussions about where to relocate people. Residents should be hired for jobs. They need to be given life insurance.

The State Counselor says a memorandum of understanding for the SEZ has been signed. Rakhine residents are not even aware of what is happening. It should not be that way.

How can work be provided for Rakhine residents?

We do not know what is going to be in the SEZ. If there is a vehicle or electrical equipment factory, how could residents get the jobs? We do not know what kind of factories there will be.

People who own hotels support the project but rural residents do not know how they will benefit from the SEZ. Most importantly they are concerned about land compensation.

SEO: SEZ, Rakhine State, Maday, gas pipelines, oil pipelines, China, fishing, environment, Arakan Front Party, human rights, land grabs, land seizures, big business, agricultural rights, democracy, military power, Kyaw Lwin