Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra earlier this week visited the site of the Dawei Special Economic Zone during her trip to Myanmar, signalling the progress of the project, for which construction is set to start in the first quarter of next year.
The project will be feasible economically because the Thai side sees it as providing ready access to the Indian Ocean. The Dawei deep-sea port and industrial estate project is set to stretch from Dawei to Kanchanaburi province in Thailand. The project will include a four-lane road, railway, natural-gas pipelines and electric power lines through the Tanytharyi Forest.
The economic benefits of the new port make the project interesting for investors. Nonetheless, the developers must also take into account other aspects, such as the environment and the impact on local people. It is expected that 32,000 people in 20 villages will have to be relocated to pave way for the establishment of the special economic zone.
Before construction starts, the responsible agencies and decision-makers must communicate with the residents to ensure their buy into the project. The Joint Coordinating Committee is now working on compensation and rehabilitation plans for people affected by the construction. It must ensure that local people who have to be evacuated receive proper and sufficient training and compensation to enable them to stand on their own after they move elsewhere. These people must be equipped with new resources and skills to help them live in dignity.
The environmental study must be thorough to ensure that the project has no serious impact on the environment and natural habitats of wildlife. Previous clashes between citizens and new investors in emerging areas are evidence that such projects can be difficult to complete if they do not win support from local people.
The flurry of new investment coming into once-isolated Myanmar could easily invite controversy. For instance, the Letpadaung copper mine in Myanmar recently faced opposition from local people who have complained about health problems and environmental destruction. Some locals reportedly complained that they were forced from their farmland to allow the company to expand the mine.
Before the opening up of Myanmar, its authorities were able to silence dissenting voices. However, the conditions have changed. The Myanmar people are increasingly enjoying the freedom to express their views. Therefore, projects that do not receive their support can face resistance like that at the copper mine, where protesters blocked access.
The incident at the Letpadaung mine also reveals the kind of sensitivity that foreign investors have to take into consideration. Sudden interest from foreign investors in a once-isolated country can be overwhelming for many local people because they have to suddenly change their way of life. Thus, communications must also be able to benefit from new investment.
With the new investment coming in, many local people around Dawei are to be removed from their homes. It remains to be seen if the relocation plan will allow them to maintain their traditional lifestyle. Communities nearby will also face an environmental impact from the newly established industrial sites, which will pollute the earth and waterways.
The Dawei project, once implemented, will have the footprint of Thailand all over it, because the current government staunchly supports the project. Therefore, if anything goes wrong, or if it faces resistance from local people, it will cause negative sentiment towards Thai investors and Thailand in general.
A qualified business model and preparation can serve as an example of how Myanmar should embrace the views of stakeholders, by creating transparency and good governance before embarking upon any investment project.
The Dawei project must place emphasis on all aspects equally, not only economic benefits but also community development and adherence to the rule of law and respect for people’s rights. This new investment must co-exist with local people peacefully and for mutual prosperity.