Quality Talk?

By Tamas Wells 27 February 2015

The unexpected suspension of the Myitsone dam project in late 2011 raised the hopes of many Myanmar people that a new approach to infrastructure planning may be on the horizon.

The previous military government had been characterized by opaque deals and projects that gave little regard to their impact on local communities. But under President U Thein Sein’s administration—and with the engagement of a new set of donors and companies—a new emphasis on “international standards” in infrastructure projects has emerged.

With expectations of community dialogue and consent, this is potentially a positive shift in broadening the benefits of development projects to meet community, as well as corporate, interests.

Yet there is growing evidence that the uptake of international standards may not be as much of a step forward as was hoped—even in flagship infrastructure projects such as the Thilawa and Dawei special economic zones. The days of “bulldozer consultation” may be over, but there has not necessarily been any real change in corporate accountability.

‘The Companies Are on the Way’

A recent survey by the Dawei Development Association in the area of the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) project in southern Myanmar found that many people who attended consultation meetings—organized by the main construction company Italian Thai Development (ITD)—felt intimidated. Their concerns were not even heard, let alone addressed.

“The only thing they told us was that the companies were on the way. We were not allowed to say what we would like to say,” said a resident of Hsin Phyu Tine village near Dawei.

Of particular concern was the way ITD sought to portray widespread community support for the project, especially from religious leaders. Local communities complained that promotional materials in the project’s visitor center displayed—allegedly without consent—photos of ITD staff “consulting” with local monks at village meetings. To avoid future misrepresentation of their position, some local community members held up signs and banners at their next meeting stating their disapproval of the project.

In Mon State last year, Thai engineering and construction company Toya-Thai held a set of consultation meetings about a proposed coal-fired power plant in Ye Township. Yet residents of Andin village, which is close to the project site, sent a complaint letter to Toya-Thai claiming that the meetings had not provided them with sufficient information and that the company had failed to answer key questions on environmental and health issues. Even more worryingly, villagers claimed that at their most recent meeting in December, organizers bused in a group of outsiders to take part while those living closest to the project site were excluded.

Similar concerns have been raised by communities affected by the Thilawa SEZ project on the outskirts of Yangon. Last year a formal complaint was submitted to the project’s primary donor, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)—Japan’s development agency—on behalf of communities affected by initial project phases in Alwan Sot and Thilawa Kone Than villages. Displaced communities felt that they were pressured into signing inadequate compensation agreements and cited poor housing and living standards, loss of income and lack of education opportunities at the relocation site.

Yet curiously, the JICA investigation into the complaint found the resettlement process had not breached any JICA principles. The complaint over insufficient compensation was dismissed because it had been negotiated through consultation meetings—a process that the community stressed was deeply flawed.

The message from JICA seemed to be that community grievances wouldn’t be considered a breach of standards as long as there was nominal consultation.

Having a Say

Of course new infrastructure projects can never please everyone. Even the most meaningful, inclusive and responsive engagement with communities may not yield universal consent. Yet even when projects go ahead against the wishes of some, local communities should, as a minimum, be given a say in their future—for example through input into the conditions of relocation, or reducing the health or environmental risks of projects.

Communities should also not be portrayed as being uniformly opposed to infrastructure development. It is not always a zero-sum game between corporate and community interests. For example, while there may be vocal opposition to the coal-fired power plant project in Ye Township, communities in Dawei and Thilawa are generally open to certain elements of the planned special economic zones.

The core issue is that in all of these examples, despite there being scope for genuine dialogue, consultations were perceived by communities to be largely meaningless.

But what of other donors, such as the World Bank? With their explicit goal of poverty reduction, surely they set an example of meaningful consultation? Could they provide a model for companies and other donors in Myanmar?

Sadly the answer remains unclear. The World Bank’s US$86 million National Community Driven Development Project, approved in November 2012, has been plagued by accusations of insufficient consultation and inflexibility—especially worrying for a project with “Community Driven” in the title. And the Bank’s record in other countries in the region is patchy. So issues over consultation clearly run beyond companies such as ITD and Toya-Thai, with multilaterals and Western actors also likely falling short.

The raw use of corporate (and government) power in the planning of infrastructure projects like the Myitsone dam was plain to see. There was never any expectation of local consultation or consent and communities were forced to accept whatever compensation was offered.

The new emphasis on community consultation presents a different vocabulary and holds out a vision of “international standards” where the benefits of development may be shared more widely. Yet underneath the new clothing of international standards, the experience of many communities is not as different as we might think. Corporate and donor power—as shown in Dawei, Andin and Thilawa—can still be wielded in unaccountable ways.

Spreading the benefits of development projects so that all interests are served is crucial. Yet this will require donors and companies to do more than just tick the box of “consultation.”

Tamas Wells is editor of the Paung Ku Forum. This article first appeared in the February 2015 edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.