RANGOON — Villagers affected by the Dawei special economic zone (SEZ) and deep-sea port in Burma’s southeast are urging the Burmese, Thai and Japanese governments to solve existing problems related to the project before pushing ahead with its implementation.
At a public forum organized by local residents affected by the Dawei SEZ on Monday in Rangoon, local civil society groups bolstered that argument with calls for improved transparency on the 204.5-square-kilometer infrastructure project and greater public inclusion.
Since implementation began, the SEZ has affected livelihoods in 20-36 villages, in which 22,000 to 43,000 people reside, according to a 2014 report by the Dawei Development Association (DDA), one of the CSOs in attendance on Monday.
Progress on the SEZ in Tenasserim Division has been slow-going in recent years, but with a new government soon coming to power in Burma and Japanese support for the project secured last year, locals are concerned that development will accelerate in the months to come.
Saw Frankie Abreu, the director of the Tenasserim River and Indigenous People’s Network (TRIP NET), said the new Burmese government’s overall attitude toward economic development would be crucial in determining whether it would listen to the public or not.
Since its initiation in 2008, the project has faced criticism due to its potential environmental and social impacts. Its implementation has been delayed in part due to local resistance, but also difficulties in securing funding.
It is being backed by the Burmese, Thai and Japanese governments.
The CSOs on Monday highlighted impacts of the project that included loss of lands at the project site and due to related road infrastructure; skyrocketing land prices; negative effects on women’s security; and locals’ loss of traditional livelihoods.
Su Su Swe, the general secretary of the Tavoyan Women’s Union (TWU), said: “Development projects should not damage the public’s lives, but we still have witnessed human rights abuses … which were common under military rule, and still today.”
Not only facing loss of livelihoods, some locals from Char Kham village, at the geographic heart of the project, have also faced imprisonment for attempting to protect their lands.
Hla Thein was one of three villagers imprisoned for one month in 2014 after he and two others refused to leave their fishing village in 2012. Prior to his imprisonment, Hla Thein endured a 12-month ordeal of repeated court appearances before a verdict was finally reached, his wife Aye Cho told The Irrawaddy.
Char Kham was a coastal village where locals had depended on fishing to earn a living for years, but had to resettle to nearby Htein Gyi village when the project began, in the process forcing some of the relocated to seek alternative livelihoods.
“I wish I could be a fisherman again,” recalled Hla Thein, who had caught fish in the sea for nearly two decades before changing to his current job as a day-laborer. He added that he had been able to support his wife and two children with his fishing job, “but now everything has changed.”
Even farther afield, lives too have been affected by the SEZ’s development. In Thabuchaung village, some 59 kilometers away from the main project area, villagers lost land as a road was paved to link-up the SEZ and deep-sea port. Despite compensation being offered in 2012, many of the affected refused to take it, said Saw Ke Doh, a Tabuchaung villager.