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The road to Dawei is paved with empty promises

A car drives on the road linking Thailand to the Thai-backed Dawei Special Economic Zone project in southern Burma in November 2015. (Photo: ERIA)

Burma’s State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi will meet with Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha to discuss bilateral issues focused on trade and economic cooperation during her visit to Thailand on 23-25 June. Meanwhile, the Thai government has announced yet again plans to put the long-delayed Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) project higher on its agenda.

In 2012, Suu Kyi visited Thailand on her first trip outside of Burma in 24 years. She met with Burmese migrant workers in Mahachai, Samut Sakhon province, which has the largest migrant community in Thailand. At that time, she promised to do her best to improve the country’s economy so that migrant workers would have jobs to return home to in Burma.

Many Burmese migrant workers in Thailand believe that Suu Kyi will be able to more effectively address the issues of exploitation and violations of migrant workers’ rights in her new capacity as a leading figure in Burma’s first democratically elected government after decades of military rule. They hope that discussions during her upcoming visit will ultimately result in better protection of their rights and improvements in their legal standing. As the host country, Thailand plays a vital role in enhancing the regulations and policies needed to protect and enforce migrant workers’ rights, which have long been disregarded.

Suu Kyi’s intention to create a more robust economy for migrant workers to return home to could be considered an ideal match with her Thai counterpart’s promotion of the Dawei SEZ project and its employment-creation benefits.

The project was initiated by the Italian-Thai Development Company, which was granted a concession to implement the first phase of the project in August 2015. Proponents have consistently promoted the project’s potential for boosting the economy and creating job opportunities for local people. According to the Dawai SEZ Integrated Master Plan, the project has the potential to create 900,000 jobs by 2045.

Does the new Burmese government really consider the Dawai SEZ project a viable part of the effort to re-energize the country’s economy? Have they been tempted by the high levels of projected benefits? Are they willing to simply overlook the high cost of social and environmental impacts, many of which have already occurred on the project site and will continue to intensify if it moves forward?

Perhaps it’s time for the new National League for Democracy (NLD) government to thoroughly examine the details of the mega-project and carefully reconsider the impacts. The Dawai SEZ covers 196.5 square kilometers, an area about 8 times larger than the Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate in Thailand’s Rayong Province.

Thailand’s experience with Map Ta Phut reveals that the dark side of such mega-projects cannot be hidden. There are predictable winners and losers in the game of industrial development. According to one report undertaken by civil society groups in Thailand, the main groups who profited from the Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate were large corporations, both foreign and Thai owned. Small-scale local businesses do not have enough capital or technological expertise to invest in petrochemical industries. Other groups that benefit include politicians, senior officials, and related businesses such as construction and transportation.

Meanwhile, small local businesses, ranging from tourist resorts to grocery stores, have been adversely affected by the industrial development. The pollution from the construction of roads and ports has permanently destroyed the coastline and the once popular beaches of Rayong.

Furthermore, most local residents were sidelined from employment opportunities as they do not possess the necessary skills required to work in high-tech factories. Only a few people have been hired as housekeepers, gardeners or drivers.

Local residents in Map Ta Phut have also suffered from the loss of agricultural areas, fisheries and gardens, and are no longer able to be self-reliant. This same scenario is currently unfolding in Dawei. In Map Ta Phut, the traditional sources of water such as rainwater, canals and shallow water wells, have been contaminated with toxins from the atmosphere, and from polluted wastewater entering the ground. Moreover, the pollution and environmental changes have caused serious health problems. In addition, Rayong has the highest national rate of many different types of cancer.

Proponents of large industrial projects tend to emphasize the benefits of job creation. However, the situation in Map Ta Phut has shown that the traditional way of life and culture has been significantly impacted by the large number of migrant workers moving into the area. Moreover, according to the Chamber of Commerce in Rayong, the gap between the rich and poor has become significantly wider.

Although the initial phase of the Dawei SEZ project has just started, the local people have stated the project has already destroyed the economic backbone of their communities.  A report undertaken by the Dawei Development Association (DDA), which was also submitted to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Thailand, estimated that 20 to 36 villages (comprising approximately 4,384 to 7,807 households or 22,000 to 43,000 people) would be directly affected by the construction of the Dawei SEZ and related projects, including the industrial estate, ports, road links, reservoirs and resettlement areas. And 71 percent of affected households expect to lose all or some of their land to the Dawei SEZ.

The investigation by the NHRC has also pointed out that the Dawei SEZ Project has already caused negative impacts to local communities, especially with regard to the lack of transparency and inconsistent standards. Local people have been subjected to land appropriations and loss of their livelihoods and incomes without prior notification. Moreover, the local groups have voiced their concerns on numerous occasions to the relevant authorities and the company. No response has been forthcoming and their problems remain unresolved.

Suu Kyi’s visit to Thailand will bring hope to both Burmese migrant workers in Thailand and the local communities in Dawei who are negatively impacted by industrial development and awaiting a response from both governments to address their problems. The local communities remain optimistic that the development will include peoples’ consent as well as active participation from all stakeholders.

The time has come for the newly elected democratic government of Burma to pause and carefully examine the Dawei SEZ Project to ensure that its decision will best represent all of the people who placed power in its hands.

This commentary was submitted by Dawei Watch Thailand. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.