RANGOON – The government must amend U Thein Sein government-era Special Economic Zone (SEZ) laws in accordance with international standards to protect human rights, said three delegates of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) at a press conference in Rangoon on Monday.
Over the past eight months, the ICJ—comprised of 60 judges and lawyers charged with promoting human rights through legal expertise—interviewed over 100 government officials, businesses, and local residents connected to Burma’s SEZs to determine the implementation and impact of SEZ laws.
The ICJ discovered that while SEZ laws detail procedures for leasing land to developers, they do not provide information on resettling persons whose homes, land, or livelihoods were lost due to SEZ development.
The SEZ laws—including a main law and a “rules and regulations” by-law—contains three chapters highlighting the potential benefits for investors, but had no mention of human rights.
“The [country’s] laws don’t always work together very clearly,” said Regional Director of ICJ Mr. Saman Zia-Zarifi.
“Part of our suggestions to the government,” he added, “is to bring the land laws, the SEZ law, and human rights laws together.”
Legal consultant of the ICJ Sean Bain noted that civil society organizations (CSOs) from SEZ regions have documented human rights abuses by the state and by companies.
There were cases of displaced persons reporting no meaningful consultation and inadequate compensation in the development of SEZs in Dawei and Thilawa, he said.
He said that further development of SEZs in Burma and related investment agreements, should wait until laws have been amended to protect the rights of residents and workers in SEZs.
Land Disputes and Contradictory Laws
U Tun Kyi—the coordinator of CSO Kyaukphyu Rural Development Association in Arakan State—said local farmers were unable to obtain compensation for land developed in the Kyaukphyu SEZ as they were unable to show registration documents to local authorities.
U Tun Kyi noted that SEZ law doesn’t mention the formation of a committee at the state level, and, currently, problems are managed by the central working body of the SEZ committee with the assistance of local authorities.
Farmers in the SEZ zone were unclear where to put forward their case—to local authorities, the national SEZ committee, or the courts.
There is no SEZ office in Kyaukpyu and most committee members live in Rangoon; farmers are automatically cut off from the committee, U Tun Kyi pointed out.
“The state government has no say in these land disputes,” he said, “everything will be directly handled from Rangoon. At the moment, we have no idea what the SEZ committee members are doing.”
Sean Bain explained the contradictions between Burma’s SEZ laws and other national laws, including the 1894 Land Acquisition Act of Burma, and the lack of accountability of the SEZ committee.
The ICJ claimed that the government SEZ committee breached the principles of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)—designed to grant adequate standards of living for local communities, and signed by Burma in 2015—and UN guiding principles on development-based displacement. Both demonstrate that forced eviction is forbidden in international law.
As an ICESCR-signatory, Burma’s government should establish a resettlement plan prior to any land acquisition as part of Environmental Impact Assesssment (EIA) procedures.
The ICJ found that in Burma’s three SEZs—in Dawei, Thilawa and Kyaukphyu—the committee coordinated land acquisition before the completion of a resettlement plan for the local community.
If SEZ laws cannot be immediately changed through Parliament, the government should conduct EIA procedures that comply with the international standards of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
Sean Bain said that when the ICJ met with the newly appointed SEZ committee members in Naypyidaw over the past months they expressed a strong commitment to human rights and to not repeating the mistakes of the previous government.
Dawei Development Association’s (DDA) coordinator Ko Thant Zin agreed with the recommendations of the ICJ that SEZ laws should ensure legal protection for local communities.
Although enticing investors with SEZs is good for Burma’s economic development and job creation, the committee should outline what sort of factories will be in the SEZ, Ko Thant Zin said.
In Dawei SEZ, refinery factories have not produced a significant number of local jobs.
He also pointed out that the government-appointed SEZ committee should follow the procedures of the relevant ministry.
Last week, Thilawa SEZ committee commenced construction of its Zone B project expected to be completed in mid-2018, with the EIA completed by the SEZ committee.
“EIA processes are the duty of the ministry of natural resources and environmental conservation,” said Ko Thant Zin.
“But as far as I know, in being in the second phase of the Thilawa SEZ, its body makes decisions regarding the EIA. They should respect the ministry’s provisions,” he added.
The Irrawaddy contacted Kyaukphyu SEZ committee member U Thaung on Tuesday but he declined to comment.