Myanmar: Dawei SEZ is for the few, not the many
A few elites will benefit from reviving Dawei SEZ, but what about the rest? Civil society organisations demand authorities to halt the controversial Dawei project and rethink.
CIVIL society organisations have demanded the authorities to reconsider the plans to revive the controversial Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ). They argued that a site-wide environment impact assessment must be carried out and all past problems must be “fully and completely” resolved before the project resumes.
The SEZ has been accused of grave human rights violations including forced evictions, a lack of transparency and environmental disruption as the land lease contract for its initial phase is expected to be signed before April.
Furthermore, the legality of the Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs) is questioned while experts say that the project has destroyed farmlands, polluted rivers and is threatening the lands and livelihoods of communities.
The SEZ in Tanintharyi Region, which is divided into two phases, is one of the three SEZs in Myanmar — the other two being Thilawa SEZ in southern Yangon and Kyaukphyu SEZ in Rakhine.
Civil society organisations across the country stated that they are deeply concerned by the Myanmar government’s plans to resume the Dawei SEZ.
“Dawei society – from the sea to the fields to the highlands, from Dawei town to all surrounding areas, from Dawei migrants working abroad to their friends and family in Dawei – will experience profound and long-lasting changes as a result of the SEZ.
“Dawei society’s land and livelihoods, shared histories and traditions, ecologies and cultures, and ability to build common futures are all under threat,” a total of 36 civil society organisations (CSO) wrote in a joint statement released on Tuesday.
They called on all project proponents to “urgently reconsider plans to resume the Dawei SEZ” and have listed five demands to the governments of Myanmar, Thailand, and Japan, as well as project contractors, such as Thai construction firm Italian-Thai Development (ITD).
“Before the project resumes, we would like to know who will take responsibility of the past problems, what is due diligence process and what are plans not to repeat the same mistakes. It is said that EIAs have been approved, how it goes without meaningful public consultations. Where is accumulated impact assessment for such kind of mega project? There are a lot of unanswered questions. There is no democracy without transparency and accountability,” Bo Bo, deputy director at EarthRights International told The Myanmar Times yesterday.
First of all, CSOs demand that the project must not resume unless all previous problems are completely resolved.
“In the Dawei SEZ project areas, paddy lands have been destroyed. Vast areas of land have been seized according to no legal process. Rivers, streams, and fishing areas have been blocked or polluted. Some villagers face a struggle just to survive, their livelihoods having been ruined.
“These harms result from earlier phases of project implementation. Unless they are fully resolved according to villagers’ satisfaction, the project must not resume,” the CSOs stated.
Secondly, a site-wide environmental impact assessment (EIA) must be conducted and approved, as required under Myanmar law, before the project resumes.
EIAs have been conducted for the 10 projects under the initial phase of the SEZ project. However, no site-wide EIA has been conducted. The rights groups insisted that the EIAs must address long-standing systemic concerns of the communities over how the previous EIAs were conducted, including lack of meaningful consultation and little or no feedback opportunities.
Thirdly, Dawei SEZ should provide accurate, timely, and accessible information about all aspects of project implementation.
“Since the beginning, project proponents have failed to provide basic information that is of the utmost importance to villagers’ lives and livelihoods. On matters such as relocation, compensation, employment opportunities, and environmental impacts, proponents must provide accurate and timely information in a way that is accessible for all people, regardless of gender, income, age, and livelihood.
“Misleading information, such as the inflated employment estimates given by the government, create false hopes and manipulate consent,” the joint statement said.
Fourthly, meaningful community participation in all aspects of project decision-making must be ensured.Local communities must be given the opportunity to give or withhold their consent to the project overall, as well as specific elements like compensation, relocation, and surveying processes. This means changing the narrative of the project, where proponents assume that offering compensation and wage labour is the best and right solution for local communities.
Instead of this approach, local people must be able to choose their own futures beyond those choices from proponents.
Lastly, the authorities should pursue alternative development strategies without delay, such as sustainable agriculture, fisheries and community-based tourism, instead of “a top-down project based on dirty industries”. The CSOs urged Nay Pyi Taw to urgently pursue alternative development strategies based on the existing lives and livelihoods of Dawei communities. The government must facilitate policies that protect and develop small-scale, labour-intensive practices such as peasant farming, fishing, livestock rearing, and customary forest use, they argued. These practices provide livelihoods and maintain the environment for the vast majority of people in Dawei, supporting social solidarity and forms of life that “question the assumption that modern industry and market capitalism are the natural end points for all societies”. This is why Dawei CSOs promote alternative strategies and policies for development, such as sustainable agriculture, fisheries, and community-based tourism.
“We demand the government pursue these alternative strategies imme-diately and with serious intent,” the 36 signatories said. The statement ended by arguing that Dawei society deserves “an open and honest reckoning” over who will benefit if the SEZ project resumes.
“Who will gain, and who will lose? We maintain grave reservations over who really benefits from dirty industries and resource extraction: a few political, economic, and military elites. … we call on project proponents to carefully reconsider their plans to resume the Dawei SEZ. Instead, we must all build alternative futures, not just for Dawei society but Myanmar overall,” the organisations concluded.
The statement has 36 signatories. These include Dawei Development Association (DDA), Dawei Probono Lawyer Network (DPLN), Tavoyan Women’s Union (TWU), Tanintharyi River Indigenous People Network (TRIP-NET), Community Sustainable Livelihoods and Development (CSLD), Rays of Kamoethway Indigenous People and Nature (RKIPN), Paung Ku, Progressive Voice, Community Response Group (ComReG) and more.
Forced evictions, no consultations
Dr Charlie Thame from Thammasat University told The Myanmar Times earlier this month that residents in the project site were evicted by force from their lands and unfairly sidelined in the land acquisition process.
He said that promises to compensate local farmers have been made and broken in the past. This is partly due to unclear laws and shortco ings imple-menting them.
Sean Bain, legal consultant from the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), noted that no site-wide EIA or public consultation was implemented and the project lacks transparency.
“Our understanding is that no site-wide EIA has been conducted as required by law. That EIA for the entire zone should take place before and not after the individual EIAs for different project components, such as a waste facility or power plant,” he said.
The government recently announced that the land lease contract is expected to be signed soon. “For the initial phase of Dawei SEZ, we will hire international legal consultants to sign land lease a contract that is planned to be finalised before this April, and soon transfer it in accordance with the Concession Agreement,” deputy commerce minister U Aung Htoo told Amyotha Hluttaw on February 14.