By KHINE KYAW
Some villagers living in the proposed project area and near the road link to Thailand shared their frustrations at the launch of a report by EarthRights International entitled, “Communities in the balance: local voices and prospects for the Dawei SEZ” last Thursday.
“We once had high hopes for the project, but now they are all gone. We will be more than happy to welcome the project if it is resumed, but it should come up with a good result rather than beautiful words that are not realistic at all,” said Than Shein, who lives in Payadard Village a part of the proposed site for the Dawei SEZ.
He said the lives of those living in the six villages where the first phase of the project were to be implemented is even worse than during the term of the previous government.
“We have nothing. Road infrastructure is really bad, and we do not have access to electricity. What is worse, there are no job opportunities here. We have been left far behind other townships in Tanintharyi region,” he said.
He admitted that the majority of the households in the village had to entirely depend on the income of their young family members who are now working in Thailand due to lack of jobs in Dawei. “More than 90 per cent of the people here strongly support the Dawei SEZ because they believe it will create a number of jobs for locals. We demand that the authorities make it happen for the sake of the locals,” he said.
Saw Keh Doh of Thabyuchaung village stressed the importance of transparency, accountability and responsibility in every single effort to revive the project that has been in the pipeline for a decade.
“We need accurate information and reliable updates about this project,” he said.
He urged the regional authorities to engage with locals, particularly the grass-roots people living in the project area.
“Ministers usually meet with a selected group of people such as township administrators and village heads. Actually, they need to talk to vulnerable groups like us. We can see that the government wants to resume the project soon but they do not publicise any updated information to us. How can we accept the project without any public discussions?” he questioned.
“At an earlier meeting, we raised some questions with the authorities on how the project would be implemented, how long it would take, what benefits it would bring us as well as our country.
But we have not received any clear-cut answers yet,” he said.
Than Shein of Payadut village considered a reasonable compensation and concrete plans for sustainability of locals’ lives as the best solution to address public worries. He also called for stronger legislation with regard to land possession.
Po Win of the same village shared a similar view. She demanded better transportation and affordable access to electricity, as villagers now have very limited access to electricity at an expensive rate of 900 kyats (Bt19) per unit.
She also raised concerns about relocation and resettlement if the project were to be resumed.
“We do not know exactly where we will be relocated and whether or not things will be the same as our current life. We are also worried about whether or not we will be able to survive in the way that we are used to as farmers,” she said.
In light of the locals’ concerns, the report mainly focuses on four key areas of research – information access, livelihood, employment and gender. According to the findings, locals’ expectations include improving access to information, transparent and fair compensation, creating jobs and infrastructure investment, inclusive cooperation and no relocation without better quality of life, said Bo Bo Aung, Myanmar campaign adviser at EarthRights International.
“It has been 10 years since the plan for the Dawei SEZ was announced. A lot of problems remain unsolved and the communities have been suffering from uncertainty and worries for a decade,” he said.
He said such problems must be solved and remedies found whether the project proceeds or not. He urged the authorities to respect the local communities’ views, stressing the importance of a transparent process of compensation and relocation.
“The locals have doubts about whether or not the SEZ really benefits the community. There is some evidence that the project may worsen the insecurity of locals’ livelihoods. And it is possible to achieve those things without the SEZ at all,” he said.
Thant Zin, director of Dawei Development Association, said the report aims to learn how the villagers see the SEZ and what it means for their livelihoods.
He added all the key stakeholders including authorities from Myanmar and Thailand, developer Italian-Thai Development Co, and potential investors should know more about the locals’ views on the project so that the project can achieve success, if it were resumed.
“For a mega-project to be successful, the most important thing is to listen to the locals’ voices. We have done similar research in 2011 and 2013. It is vital to understand diverse ideas, opinions, hopes, and concerns of those whom the SEZ will most directly affect,” he said.
Myanmar’s National League for Democracy government should not repeat the mistakes of the previous administration, he warned.