By KHINE KYAW
ASIA NEWS NETWORK
Charlie Thame, a researcher at Thammasat University’s faculty of political science, wrote a year-long report entitled “SEZs and value extraction from the Mekong.”
He said at the report launch on Friday the SEZs had been developed with limited transparency and locals have been displaced without proper consultation and adequate redress.
“International standards regarding land, labour rights, and environmental protection officially apply to SEZs, but they have not been effectively implemented,” he said.
“Workers face obstacles protecting rights they are entitled to. Environmental impact assessments have not always met international standards, and environmental regulations have been enforced selectively in some zones.”
Thame highlighted four key recommendations of a year-long report. He urged the government to revise the SEZ legislative and governance structures; to prioritise responsible investments in sustainable industries and to encourage investments in public infrastructure including education and healthcare; and to improve transparency and accountability in the development of SEZs.
He also suggested the civil society stress the voices of local communities and workers to ensure they are included in decision making of the projects as well as holding the government and companies accountable for activities related to the SEZs.
“It is hard to see many redeeming features of SEZs, and if I were from Myanmar, I would strongly suppose their development,” he said.
He said the studies were based on desk reviews of existing literature, and interviews with government officials, investors, garment manufacturer association representatives, bank representatives, a national human rights commissioner, non-government organisations, and representatives from labour unions and organisations.
The report pointed out weaknesses in SEZ governance structures, and the lack of transparency and accountability in the development and administration of the zones, heightened the risk of capture of the State by political and economic elites.
Shalmali Guttal, executive director of Focus on the Global South, said economic growth could not be promoted without a proper assessment of costs and benefits.
“Globally, there is plenty of evidence to show the impacts of SEZs on the rights of workers and local communities. It is alarming that the interest of investors continues to be protected at the cost of people and the environment,” she said.
According to Guttal, the Greater Mekong subregion usually draws investors’ interest thanks to its abundant resources, plenty of land, and young and energetic labour.
She said the government should protect the rights of its citizens to ensure benefits from Asean Economic Community. She called for transparency with the agreements and implementation of mega projects.
“The quality of the environment is really vital to that of life. The agreements with companies should not be a secret. Negative impacts on the quality of water and forests etc should not be neglected,” she said.
Soe Shwe, coordinator of Myanmar SEZs Watch, said the current SEZ law did not provide enough protection for local communities but mainly aimed at protecting the interest of investors to attract FDI.
“Our laws and regulations need to be reviewed and amended as soon as possible. They should include protection measures for residents living in the project areas,” he said.
He added the government must minimise the negative impacts caused by the SEZs by providing locals with opportunities to participate in the consultations and decision making before implementation of the projects.
“It is really hard to raise our voices, when it comes to implementation of the SEZs. Once the decision is set by the authorities, they always try to neglect locals’ view. Such practice has been deep-rooted, and we have not seen any progress under this democratic government yet,” he said.