Monday, February 24, 2014

Dawei Awaits Its Destiny

A signpost for a planned new gas terminal near the shoreline at the planned Dawei SEZ. Click on the box below for more photos. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)
THE IRRAWADDY On Saturday, February 22, 2014 - MAUNGMAGAN, Tanintharyi Region — U Aung Myint, a community leader from Mudu village, stands next to a meter-long, gold-colored footprint with 108 Buddhist signs that was carved on a large boulder many centuries ago. “We believe that the Buddha visited here and that this is his left footprint,” he said.

The relic, around which a pagoda has been constructed, is part of the heritage of the ethnic Dawei people, who have lived in southern Myanmar’s Tanintharyi Region since the 8th century. The ancient artifact gave the cluster of villages on this remote coastal plain its local name: Nabule. “The Pali word for left foot is Nabule,” U Aung Myint explained.

The area is known on most maps as northern Maungmagan, located some 20 km northwest of Dawei city, and it is here that Southeast Asia’s biggest industrial estate is being developed: the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ).

The creation of a multi-billion dollar “new global gateway of Indochina” at the site of secluded, ancient villages underscores the dramatic changes that this long-isolated coastal region will experience if the project is realized.

The Myanmar government considers the Dawei SEZ a great economic engine for the impoverished country and officials boast of the region’s future as an industrial hub.

Many Dawei residents and activists, however, fear that they will bear the costs, rather than the benefits, of the sweeping changes that the massive project will bring. They complain of the project’s heavy environmental impact, forced eviction from the SEZ without adequate compensation, and a region-wide surge in land grabs.

Although their pagodas will not be knocked down, many in Nabule oppose leaving their ancestral villages for fear of losing their Dawei heritage. “Our forefathers lived here for more than 1,000 years,” said U Aung Myint. “I am certain that the more the project will be developed, the more our culture will decline.”

Losing Ground to a Stalled ‘Regional Hub’
In 2008, Myanmar’s former military government and Thailand signed a deal to develop the Dawei SEZ, a project that includes a huge industrial estate, a deep-sea port for supertankers, and highway, railroad and oil pipeline routes to Bangkok, located some 350 km to the east.

Billed as Myanmar’s largest export industry zone and a regional trade hub, its strategic location would allow companies from Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and China to send goods overland to the Bay of Bengal and bypass the busy Strait of Malacca shipping lane.

Government officials, such as U Aung Tun Thet of the Myanmar Investment Commission, presented glowing plans to “transform Dawei into a newly opened investment destination and logistic hub of the region” valued at US$50 billion, which would “generate a very large amount of employment.”

Italian-Thai Development Public Company Ltd (ITD) won the project concession and sought to attract $8 billion in investment to develop the zone’s infrastructure, after which international firms were expected to build heavy industries, such a massive coal-fired plant, a steel plant, oil refineries and a chemical fertilizer plant.

However, ITD failed to attract investors and the project faced numerous delays. In November 2013, Myanmar and Thailand took the firm off the project and called for the involvement of Japan’s government and Japanese firms. Tokyo has since shown an interest in reviving the project and on Nov. 21 Mitsubishi announced it would work with ITD and the Thai government to develop a 7,000-megawatt coal plant at Dawei.

In 2010, ITD had already begun construction of the SEZ, a water reservoir and a two-lane access road to Thailand. The plans will ultimately force the resettlement of 12,000 people from six ethnic Dawei villages in Maungmagan, while thousands of ethnic Kayin (Karen) villagers in the Tanintharyi Yoma mountain range will lose farmland.

In Nabule, a coastal plain dotted with villages growing rubber, betel nut and cashew nut, hundreds of farmers have already seen their land confiscated for the SEZ, which will cover 200 square kilometers of untouched beaches and farmland.

Villagers and the Dawei Development Association (DDA), a local NGO monitoring the SEZ, said authorities and ITD had pressured farmers to give up land without proper consultation, while compensation procedures have been inconsistent. Future resettlement sites, they claim, lack arable farmland.

In Mudu village about 70 farmers have lost 198 acres (80 hectares) of land. “Sometimes [ITD] offers [compensation] money and then they occupy the land. Other times they first occupy the land and then they offer money,” said U Aung Myint, adding that about 30 farmers received no compensation as they refused to give up their land ownership.

Affected farmers said they were offered compensation amounts ranging from $500 to $3,000 per acre. Although the latter amount is fairly high, residents often demand more, as land prices around the SEZ have surged to between $5,000 and $10,000 per acre.

U Aung Myint lost 10 acres (4 hectares) of betel nut trees and like many farmers he is anxious about his future livelihood at one of three planned relocation sites. “I have no idea what I’m going to do, I have no land left,” he said, adding that only migrant workers had been offered jobs at the SEZ project.

DDA said ITD’s project implementation methods had violated villagers’ human rights. “Most people rely on plantation farming, but the government cannot move them and guarantee their future livelihoods,” said DDA coordinator U Thant Zin.

U Zaw Thura, a local activist and Dawei University scholar, expressed concern over the industrial zone’s expected environmental pollution. “We are worried about the northwest monsoon, it will blow all the exhaust fumes of the coal plant and other industries inland and over Dawei city,” he said, adding that ITD had refused to release the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA).

Although work started in 2010, little has been achieved at the SEZ, which remains a largely empty area, with a small port, dirt roads, a few simple office buildings and barren living quarters for ITD’s 1,200 local workers.

Managers at ITD’s project support office were reluctant to talk to Irrawaddy reporters and EIA reports by Bangkok’s Chulanglokorn University on display in a glass showcase could not be made available because staff had “no key.”

A high-ranking official involved in the planning of the SEZ said in a phone call that the government was “trying very hard to mitigate” the project’s local impacts, adding that farmers directly affected by the SEZ “are being properly compensated.”

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Naypyitaw was confident that a Japanese consortium would help to resume project work in mid-2014.

However, some economists question whether the SEZ will ever attract industrial investment, or offer any benefits to Myanmar.

“Successful SEZs have an underlying economic need and rationality first, and proceed from there. Here we seem to have an idea akin to ‘build it and they will come,’” said Sean Turnell, a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, who advises opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Any economic benefits of the project, he said, “will accrue to Thailand rather than Burma. Dawei in no way opens up the Burma hinterland to trade.”