By Theingi Htun
Dawei, Tanintharyi, Myanmar, February 26, 2016
There is a small hut with a thatched roof overlooking the Andaman Sea in Dawei, Tanintharyi Region. Near the hut, there is a milestone engraved with the letters KM 0+000 denoting the beginning of the road.
At present, there is only a wide road and vast fields but the area will soon be a flourishing major economic hub for neighbouring countries including Thailand and Myanmar. It is the site of the Dawei deep-sea port, the largest in the country, with a project area spanning thousands of square kilometres.
Currently, only a few people come to the area and it is just a seaside village. These people take photos to remember their trip and they return to where they came from. It is hard to say how much this area will change over the next five years. But local people and businessmen have high hopes for the mega deep-sea port project which initially took shape as a plan by the Thai and Myanmar governments in 2008.
Local people have experienced both pros and cons of the project since then. They frequently heard rumours of a probable and often imminent relocation of their villages. And they also knew that for its construction their farmlands, plantations and plots would be confiscated.
Compensation for land confiscation
The Dawei Special Economic Zone Management Committee Secretary Khin Maung Cho told Mizzima that they had already paid 29,038 billion kyat as compensation for 7,349.48 acres seized for the construction of the project.
The main agricultural businesses in Dawei are cashew nut and rubber plantations. Compensation was paid based on the size of the crop and location. A local villager, Kyaw Naing, explained that they were paid compensation by dividing each of the plants into three categories, small, medium and large and then compensation was paid at a rate of 100,000 kyats for large, 70,000 kyats for medium and 30,000 kyat for small. Kyaw Naing lived in Pugawzun village, one of the nearest villages to the Dawei SEZ, and he was paid compensation based on this criteria.
But allegations and problems still exist as villagers have alleged unfairness and nepotism in calculating the compensation paid to them after land confiscation.
Another Pugawzun villager, Kyaw Aye, told Mizzima: “Some have accepted the compensation in this village but some have not accepted it yet because there is unfairness in calculating our compensation. We just want fair compensation, we cannot accept compensation a lot less than expected.” He has not yet accepted the compensation paid to him.
Some local villagers who have accepted and received compensation reinvested their money in buying plots in other nearby areas to grow cashew nut plants. But some do not know what to do and their money has been spent on daily needs.
Local villager Ko Moe from Hteingyi village said laughing, “I got 17 million kyats for my 9-acre plot. And then I moved to another village after selling my cashew nut estate. Now my money has been totally spent and none is left.”
New satellite town project
Those whose estates and plantations were seized for the SEZ project received compensation while those whose houses were seized for the project were given new houses in a new satellite town called Bawa.
In Bawa town, the houses for the relocated villagers were divided into three categories large, medium and small all with the same design. Houses there will be provided to the villagers from six villages relocated for the construction of the project.
Khin Maung Cho said, “In the current initial phase of our project, we avoided building in areas near these houses so no one has been relocated at the moment. But these villagers have already agreed to be relocated to their new houses as and when needed.”
Is the project welcome?
Thai-Italian consortium and the Myanmar government signed an agreement on August 5 last year to resume their initial phase of the project. Under this agreement, the initial phase of the project must be 65% complete within three years over a seven-square-kilometre area.
Currently, Thai-Italian consortium is building infrastructure including roads, bridges, the water supply, electricity and housing. The local people are sceptical and have concerns about the success of the project. But despite their scepticism and concerns, they welcome the project being built in their region.
Ko Moe from Hteingyi village said, “We want to see the success of the SEZ project because those whose farmlands and plantations have been lost can work in this SEZ for their livelihood.”
Kyaw Aye who is still refusing the amount of compensation said, “I will not do [anything] to delay this project. I really thank them for building this SEZ project in our area and we are happy and proud of it. Our people have to go to other countries such as Thailand for work as they don’t have a job opportunity here. We wish this mega-project success but we want the compensation and damages we deserve. So I’m still insisting on non-acceptance of compensation they paid.”
The local people have high hopes for sufficient job opportunities from the project and local development. It is expected, there will be 65,000 job vacancies even in the initial phase. The Dawei SEZ project provides hope for unskilled workers in the local area and high expectations for local businessmen.
Manager Soe Thein of AK Construction Company said, “The entrepreneurs and businessmen in Dawei will benefit much from the Dawei SEZ project when it is successful. If the deep-sea port project is successful, we will get many business contracts from it. Our Dawei city will flourish a lot when the deep-sea port project is completed and running successfully.”
AK Construction is currently building houses on contract and they are watching the progress of the SEZ project and have a business expansion plan.
Thant Zin from Dawei based NGO ‘Dawei Development Association’ (DDA) said that in his opinion this SEZ project would not be beneficial for local workers in the long term.
“We have concerns over this project because industries here are not suitable for local workers. For instance, canning factories, local workers who worked in Thailand illegally have experience in such an industry. They will not have much difficulty when they come back home. But other industries in this SEZ will be high-tech industries such as petrochemical so workers will need more skills to get employment there,” Thant Zin said.
The local people hope for future employment in the SEZ, but right now they are experiencing labour problems.
One year after the signing of the agreement in 2012 work on the project started. In the initial phase, unskilled workers got jobs but then they were made unemployed when the project was suspended. And then, when the project was restarted, these workers were reappointed in their jobs but they had to refund the compensation paid to them by their employers when they were dismissed. Some had to pay the equivalent of three-month wages. Additionally, some did not have to pay back compensation but they received lower wages than previously.
Concrete mixing worker Kyaw Lin said, “We were told to pay back the compensation we received when the project was suspended. We had no choice but to pay it back as we needed jobs.”
Lei Lei Win who works for Italian-Thai in Myeik complained, “Our Myanmar workers are poorly paid.”
7-year mega project
Dawei SEZ is a 7-year project lasting from 2015 to 2022. The project has two phases, initial and main. The initial phase must be completed by 2018 and it will cost US$350 million or about 450 billion kyat.
The initial phase will have nine projects.
According to the project blueprint, there will be industrial zones, a deep-sea port, small port, schools, markets and hospitals with water and electricity, and a small city with essential infrastructure.
This mega project will help Myanmar trade with Thailand, India and Vietnam.
Along with positive points, there are some questionable issues of environmental and social impacts on the region and the people.
Dawei SEZ management committee secretary Khin Maung Cho said, “We have done an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) and we have already given these reports to the local people. We will conduct these studies again if we need more in future.”
Local resident Thant Zin from Dawei Development Association said, “As an ordinary citizen we are proud of having such a mega SEZ in our local area which will be the largest in Southeast Asia. It has become famous and popular among the people over the last 3-4 years. People came to see the project working with heavy machinery and equipment and a lot of workers. But as time passes, the progress of the execution of this mega project is unsatisfactory. One year you could see a small hut and a flag post in front of it but it would not have changed when you visited it a year later. The situation is unchanged. So the people are losing interest in this project.”
This story was produced in collaboration with The Mekong Eye and Mekong Matters Journalism Network, with full editorial control to the journalist and their outlet.
Lead image: Burmese woman removes fish from netting near the planned Dawei SEZ (Photo by Taylor Weidman/Getty Images, in collaboration with The Mekong Eye and Mekong Matters Journalism Network, available for purchase from Getty Images)