Relocated Thilawa SEZ Villagers Persist in Calls for JICA Meeting

By Yen Saning 9 April 2014

RANGOON — Families forced off their land by the Thilawa Special Economic Zone project in Rangoon Division are again urging the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to address their grievances, the fifth time in about six months that the relocated villagers have attempted to engage the Japanese governmental agency.

In their latest overture, the villagers requested a meeting with JICA officials anytime from April 23 to April 25 of this year, asking that the agency respond to the request by Friday of this week.

Sixty-eight families—who previously lived on 400 hectares of land designated for the first phase of the Thilawa SEZ—were relocated to Myaing Thar Yar Village in November 2013.

The Thilawa Social Development Group, a local community group formed by the relocated villagers, sent a letter on Monday addressed to JICA’s president and Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister Fumio Kishida.

It was the fifth formal letter sent by the group to JICA since October 2013. None of the previous letters received a response from the Japanese aid agency.

“JICA has since [Oct. 15, 2013] refused to meet with us, saying the Thilawa SEZ Management Committee and Yangon Regional [Divisional] Government have taken care of the livelihoods and job trainings for the people in the relocation site,” the letter stated, listing several problems that the group said had yet to be addressed by anyone, including a lack of potable water at the new village site.

The Tokyo-based NGO Mekong Watch, which monitors the impact of Japanese investment projects in Southeast Asia, claims that the monetary compensation, job training programs and relocation site offered to the affected villagers were not of an acceptable standard.

“The Thilawa SEZ Management Committee has often visited the relocation site and has talked directly with the relocated villagers. But the govt has still failed to provide the ‘appropriate’ compensation/livelihood support plan,” Mekong Watch told The Irrawaddy via e-mail.

Mya Hlaing, a member of the Thilawa Social Development Group, said the community organization had sent letters 13 different times to the Thilawa SEZ Management Committee from February 2013 to February 2014, none of which received any response.

He said 30 of the 68 displaced families had already sold their relocated houses after first having to mortgage their properties to make ends meet, and then falling behind on the mortgages’ interest payments.

“The pre-promise was that they would build houses, roads and livelihoods for us and would take care of our living, health and education for two or three years until we are able to settle in and find a job in the new place,” Mya Hlaing said.

“When the water is pumped out in the amount of a yoke [about two buckets’ worth], mud comes out. We have no water to use, and have to buy drinking water. Thirteen children have dropped out of school because their parents are jobless. It costs about 30,000 kyats [US$30] just for transportation [to school each month].”

About 4,500 villagers living on 2,000 hectares designated for Phase II of the project are likely to face similar problems, Mya Hlaing said, adding that an entire fishing village in the Bay Bauk area was being threatened by plans to build two JICA-sponsored jetties there.

Soe Min, labor minister for the Rangoon Division government, defended authorities’ handling of the relocated villagers.

“We made a concrete road for them as there was no road. We built 24-by-50-feet houses as they wished. [Provided] electricity instantly,” he told The Irrawaddy. “But it is not good that some are speaking with greed. I did not know that they are having problems with water. I will go and take a look. If it is a real need, we will fulfill it.”

Mekong Watch said “JICA should make sure that the government complies with the JICA’s guidelines, for example, that the government should improve or at least restore the living standard of the affected people. If the government failed to do that, JICA should give necessary advice to the government or/and should more actively take action to it.”

Mya Hlaing said the relocated villagers had no intention of disrupting the ongoing SEZ project, and were only seeking proper compensation.

“In this project, so far, even though JICA has had some interviews with some villagers at the relocation site, JICA has still failed to listen to the various affected people’s voices, by rejecting to reply to the letters [from the Thilawa Social Development Group] and rejecting to meet them. As a result, JICA has failed to recognize/respond to some problems/concerns of the affected people in this project,” Mekong Watch said.

The Thilawa SEZ has been billed as a driver of Rangoon’s future economic growth that could provide tens of thousands of jobs. But residents around the site, which sits about 20 miles southeast of downtown Rangoon, say the project so far has brought in all its labor from outside the immediate area, providing no tangible employment benefits to locals.

Additional reporting by Sanay Lin.