Villages, Residents Stand in Way of Dawei Rubber Farm

By Saw Yan Naing 14 January 2015

Sixteen villages inhabited largely by indigenous ethnic Karen people in Dawei district, where a major special economic zone in southern Burma is planned, will be leveled to make way for a large-scale rubber plantation, according to local residents.

The 50,000-acre plantation in southernmost Tenasserim Division will be operated by Myanmar Mahar Dahna Co. Ltd. in the Thein Baw Oo village tract of Tenasserim Township. The first phase of the project will cover 5,000 acres across an area in which six villages are currently sited, local inhabitants say.

Paw Say Wah, a rights advocate from the Candle Light Group, a community-based organization in Dawei district, told The Irrawaddy that local villagers and organizations are against the project because of its anticipated effects on local inhabitants of the six villages and surrounding farmlands.

“The government granted 5,000 acres to them [Myanmar Mahar Dahna]. But now villagers are against the project. They don’t want to lose their lands and villages. We are trying to speak out against it in advance, before the company brings their machines and destroys everything,” said Paw Say Wah.

Locals say there are about 500 villagers living in the six villages that will initially be affected by the rubber plantation.

According to documents obtained by The Irrawaddy, the office of the Tenasserim Division government granted permission to Myanmar Mahar Dahna Co. Ltd. to cultivate 5,000 acres of rubber trees in the project’s preliminary phase.

A senior official at Myanmar Mahar Dahna on Wednesday confirmed that local authorities had granted permission to begin developing the 5,000-acre plot. He added that the company was ready to start clearing land, but has not yet started the work due to local opposition to the project.

“We stand with civilians. We planned to establish the business in order to help local people. Most of them are ethnic Karen and they are very poor. We will provide work skills for free. When the project happens, we will even provide them with jobs and salaries,” said the senior company official, who asked for anonymity.

“We are ready to start the project, but we still have to deal with local people to manage their opposition to our project. So, we are holding off on the project,” said the official.

He denied local villagers’ assertion that there are six villages located within the 5,000 acres of the project’s first phase.

“There are no villages there. It is virgin land. … We will discuss it with local villagers,” said the official, adding that Myanmar Mahar Dahna was not like other companies that conduct their business operations without considering the will of local people.

The official also said that the company planned to operate the rubber plantation with the aim to support Burmese refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs), should they decide to return to the area amid ongoing negotiations between the government and ethnic Karen rebels. A significant portion of the populations in Burma’s ethnic regions have been displaced over the course of decades of civil war.

Myanmar Mahar Dahna applied for the 50,000-acre concession in Tenasserim Division and signed a joint venture agreement with Thai Hua Rubber Holdings, a company that operates rubber plantations and manufactures rubber-based products in Thailand.

According to the ethnic media outlet Karen News, Myanmar Mahar Dahna also plans to construct an antimony processing plant in southern Karen State’s Hlaing Bwe Township.

As economic and political reforms have opened Burma up to unprecedented domestic and foreign investment, development projects have mushroomed across the country, often resulting in land disputes.

Both the Thai and Burmese governments have ambitious plans for Tenasserim Division, where the multi-billion dollar Dawei special economic zone (SEZ) is envisioned. The project, which will include a deep-sea port and industrial park, would better link Thailand and Burma, but has struggled to attract investment.