RANGOON — A group representing residents displaced from the site of the Thilawa Special Economic Zone has slammed as “inadequate” a report by a Japanese investor into the status of landowners forced to make way for the project.
The report by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which owns a 10 percent stake in the Thilawa SEZ, has been criticized by the Thilawa Social Development Group, a local NGO, for presenting an overly optimistic portrait of the current status of residents relocated to Myaing Thar Yar Village last year.
“[Thilawa residents] mortgaged their houses and bought motorbikes for taxi businesses, because they don’t have any job opportunities and they have nothing to eat,” said Mya Hlaing, a representative of the Thilawa Social Development Group. “But it was written [in the JICA report] as if people bought motorbikes because they got extra cash.”
In June, three residents filed a formal complaint with JICA, the government agency tasked with overseeing Japan’s overseas development assistance, over the eviction and relocation of 81 households forced to make way for the first 400-hectare phase of the Thilawa development.
The following month, in accordance with the organisation’s grievance policies, JICA Examiner for Guidelines Dr Sachihiko Harashina travelled to Rangoon to meet with the complainants and determine whether JICA had defied its own guidelines for taking environmental and social considerations into account with the project.
The investigation, compiled by Dr Harashina and fellow examiner Dr Junji Annen and released on Nov. 4, addressed six specific complaints filed by the residents, including loss of access to farmland, loss of livelihood opportunities, impoverishment caused by the forced relocation, loss of educational opportunities, substandard housing and loss of access to clean drinking water.
While the report conceded some negative impacts on residents with respect to loss of access to farmland and employment opportunities, the examiners were more reluctant to attribute other complaints to the resettlement.
In a section addressing impoverishment caused by the relocation, the examiners reported that some displaced residents used monetary compensation to buy home appliances or motorbikes, concluding that the resettlement was not the sole cause of the impoverishment suffered by the householders.
According to Mya Hlaing, the JICA report was too general does not take into account the complexities of the displaced residents’ situation.
“What the examination team has done is not impressive,” he said.
Seventeen of the 68 homes in the relocation village have already been sold due to the economic hardships faced by residents, and others have been mortgaged by householders struggling to support themselves, Mya Hlaing added.
Mya Hlaing also said that the JICA report glossed over the issue of drinking water quality in the resettlement.
The initial complaint stated that only two of four water pumps in Myaing Thar Yar Village were fully functional, both of which were drawing muddy water from their wells, while two other open wells had algal blooms on the surface.
The examiners’ report concluded that while a lack of consultation with residents about the placement of wells resulted in poor water quality, the construction of deep wells in consultation with JICA experts and the Myanmar government had led to improvements in the following months, as confirmed by Dr Harashina’s field visit.
“Even the Ministry of Health has issued that the water are not suitable to drink as there are bacteria,” Mya Hlaing said.
A report released last Thursday by New York-based advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), in cooperation with the Japanese NGO Mekong Watch and the Thilawa Social Development Group, has criticized authorities for its methods in evicting Thilawa residents.
“The Burmese government violated international standards when forcibly displacing families from the Thilawa Special Economic Zone by threatening many residents with court appearances and imprisonment, giving them inadequate compensation for land lost, and failing to provide training or other means of income to those who lost their jobs.”
“The Thilawa project exemplifies how devastating forced displacement can be on local communities when governments completely disregard human rights laws for the sake of a business development,” said Widney Brown, PHR’s director of programs.
“The Burmese and Japanese governments should work to improve the living conditions for those displaced by this misguided venture, and ensure that this disaster is not repeated when hundreds of other families are relocated for future development projects,” he added.
The JICA report, for its part, has found no evidence that Thilawa villagers were intimidated into relocating from the SEZ construction site.
“JICA has found no fact of alleged coercive measures and threats used by the Myanmar government, and has judged that it is appropriate to conclude that the officials of the Myanmar government well listened [sic] to the requests and demands of the PAPs [project affected persons],” the report concluded.
Four Japanese companies, including the JICA, hold a joint 49 percent stake in the Thilawa SEZ. The Burmese government holds 10 percent, while a joint venture between nine Burmese companies holds the remaining 39 percent stake.