By Yen Snaing
Myanmar, March 1, 2016
A public seminar entitled “Myanmar’s Special Economic Zones (SEZs): Opportunities or Threats to Local Communities” attracted regional development specialists to Rangoon this week, including Penchom Saetang, Director of Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand (EARTH).
In her work as a community and policy advocate, Saetang fights for corporate and government accountability concerning health and environmental problems from industrial pollution.
As Burma is developing three SEZs in Arakan State and Rangoon and Tenasserim divisions, respectively, problems have been highlighted concerning land confiscation, a lack of public consultation and forced relocation.
The Irrawaddy’s Yen Snaing spoke with Saetang about Thailand’s experience promoting industrialization, and what experiences Burma might be able to draw upon from its neighbor.
What lessons can Burma take from Thailand regarding the development of industry in the country’s three special economic zones (SEZ)?
I’d like to say that Thailand has for a long time promoted industrialization and economic growth—I think it’s around 40 years already. Several communities [throughout] the country have suffered from the negative impacts of industrial development and the promotion of economic growth by governments that ignore [both] local livelihoods and the protection of the ecological system.
So Thailand is a good example for Myanmar to learn [about] the negative side of industrial development. We have many contaminated areas… where problems have never been solved, and there has never been any policy, action or measure to clean up those lands. Year after year, we have lost an increasing amount of agricultural land like paddy fields and water sources. This is caused by the strong Thai government promotion of industrial development without taking responsibility for the loss of nature, damage to health and the environment of local communities.
Economic growth only creates profit and wealth for very small groups of companies, both national and multinational corporations. So economic growth is not the best way to solve the economic problems of the country and it does not help to reduce the gap between the rich and poor people.
What alternatives are there?
We have other economic patterns of development that can promote growth and are more sustainable than the pattern promoted by the Thai government. That’s why many communities in Thailand try to fight the strong policy of the government and advocate for more sustainable economic development. Many people believe this is better than promoting industrialization—particularly the large-scale projects, like petro-chemical projects and coal power plants.
Burma just started this process in the last five years. In the name of economic growth, the country is trying to promote industrialization by inviting foreign direct investment into the country and also promoting special economic zones. What would you suggest to the stakeholders in this process?
Myanmar is welcoming investment both from national companies and foreigners. I think Myanmar has a very good opportunity to develop both laws and policies that promote economic growth in more sustainable ways in other ASEAN countries.
But more sustainable development will come from three things. The first one is that the Myanmar government will have to promote people’s participation parallel to promoting economic investment. It is very important, because the outcome of economic development [affects] the livelihoods, the happiness and the security of the nation and the people. So the Myanmar government should not make its own decisions without the people’s participation. If the government is open to this, they will reduce conflicts in the country in the long term.
The second thing is that before they rapidly promote economic and industrial growth, the Myanmar government should secure laws that protect the environment, control pollution, and protect [people’s] health. The investors, particularly the big industrial investors, are concerned only with earning the highest [possible] profit. The Myanmar government has a good opportunity to learn from the experiences of Thailand, Japan and other countries, and not to allow history to repeat itself.
And the third thing is that sustainable development should come with transparency and a democratic system. Transparency, good government and a democratic system are very important criteria in securing the long term [commitment] of the government and in rebuilding your country with integrity and more sustainability.