MANDALAY —The Mandalay divisional government has allowed a company to begin the initial stages of a major development project on an island in the Irrawaddy River despite protests from locals and environmentalists.
The Amarapura Urban Development Project secured 20 acres on an island—known locally as Shan Lay Kyun—in the Irrawaddy River in Amarapura Township about six kilometers southwest of Mandalay.
Mandalay Business Capital City Development Ltd (MBCCD) plans to build high-rise buildings, which will house apartments, business offices, markets, government offices, and schools by laying soil 20-feet deep across the island.
On MBCCD’s board of directors is controversial tycoon Maung Weik, founder of the Maung Weik and Family Company, one of the biggest importers of steel in Burma.
Mandalay Chief Minister U Zaw Myint Maung told a press conference at the end of May that the government would provide MBCCD with 20 acres and then review the project later to see whether it should continue. The proposal for the development encompasses 2,500 acres, including the whole island and the watershed on the opposite side of its southern shore.
“First we will construct office buildings and upgrade the road running parallel to the island that goes to Mandalay,” MBCCD spokesperson U Zaw Ye Win told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday. “We will begin testing and filling the soil, however we are facing many challenges.”
The area is usually flooded during the monsoon season, said U Zaw Ye Win, so the company needs to protect the land from submersion and erosion as well as improve the soil fill for the foundation of the site. Another challenge, he added, is building trust with the locals.
“We’ve met with the locals of Shan Lay Kyun village to assure them we will return their land and homes once the project is finished,” he said. “We are also making sure that the area will be protected from natural disasters and environmental impacts, but these tasks are still challenging us.”
He said the project would “bring development” to the region, and the company would “do its best” to protect the surrounding environment, adding that it sent an analysis on the project’s social and environmental impact to the divisional government.
The project, which took advice and technical assistance from Dutch experts, will take at least 10 years to complete, according to MBCCD.
Environmentalists said a series of meetings they held with MBCCD resulted in disagreements. U Maung Maung Oo, a local environmental activist of Green Activities, expressed surprise over the divisional government’s decision to give permission to the company to begin the project.
“Local experts have continuously advised the company not to carry out the project on the island because it would greatly affect the river flow during the monsoon season, and result in the flooding of the lower region,” he said.
He explained that the soil filling process would narrow the waterway and increase the strength of the current during the monsoon season, swamping places farther down the riverbank.
The company has stated it would build canals to channel the water away from the island, but this would not be enough during the wet season, according to U Maung Maung Oo.
Neighboring lakes such as Taung Tha Man and Kandawgyi would be flooded, he said, as well as nearby ponds and natural canals.
The whole island becomes flooded during the monsoon season, during which time some residents move to the mainland, however most of the residents live in two-story stilt houses and live upstairs.
“I just want to tell the government and the company to leave the Irrawaddy River alone, for the safety of the people who live in this region,” U Maung Maung Oo added.
Many residents want to stay in their village, although the company stated it has offered between 1 and 6 million kyats to purchase 10 by 10 meters of land, depending on the location. It also promised to rehouse residents on the island after the construction is completed.
It is unclear whether the residents would be allowed to stay on the island during the construction, but locals fear the scale of the development would push them out regardless.
Ma Wai Wai Mar, a local of Shan Lay Kyun village, said there have been “many examples” of people being forced to move from similar project areas without receiving any form of compensation.
“We do not want to take the risk of believing anyone associated with this project,” she said. “There are some villagers who agree with the project. But the company said it would take 10 years to complete—who knows what will happen during that time. We do not want to lose our land and homes.”