Residents request Thilawa SEZ halt
Local people affected by the construction of the Thilawa special economic zone have asked Japanese investors for help in making sure issues around resettlement and environmental impact are resolved.
OVER 70 companies across 14 countries have invested more than US$700 million in the Thilawa special economic zone, but local residents affected by the project are still campaigning to have the next phase halted until issues around resettlement, compensation and environmental impact are resolved.
Myanmar Thilawa SEZ Holdings (MTSH), a local Yangon-listed firm that is part of the Myanmar-Japanese consortium developing the zone, published its annual report last week. Total approved investment in Thilawa’s 400-hectare Zone A stands at $760 million. Firms are renting factory space, banks have started to lease land and plans for a shopping mall are being drawn up, it said.
That same week, however, representatives of six villages affected by the SEZ travelled to Tokyo to ask the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and other Japanese investors to help make sure the development of the 700-hectare Zone B does not continue until serious problems affecting residents’ livelihoods are dealt with.
The visit was only the latest in a series of complaints from local residents stretching back to the project’s inception. Some 68 households were resettled during development of Zone A, which began in 2013, but villagers were moved to “substandard” living conditions, which lack reliable sources of clean water, waste management systems and farmland, said NGO EarthRights International, which has supported the village representatives in their meetings.
Representative Daw Than Ei is 46 and was relocated almost three years ago as part of Zone A’s development. She told The Myanmar Times she is still waiting for an official land title for the plot onto which she was moved – a smaller piece of land without adequate access to clean drinking water.
Without the communal land on which she grew fruit and vegetables as a source of income, she now grows mushrooms instead. Daw Than Ei and her husband make less money than before, turned to outside money lenders and find life much harder since the move.
Households facing resettlement as part of Zone B’s development, which is scheduled to begin in November, have raised concerns about the resettlement plans, and are demanding more and better engagement with the local community, the NGO said in a statement on September 26.
U Mya Hlaing is 70 and although his house is outside of the area designated for Zone B, he told The Myanmar Times he will lose 14 acres of farmland. The compensation process has not yet started, he added, but farming is the main source of income for U Mya Hlaing and several of his four adult children, who all live together. He wants to see a proper community consultation process, and more focus on environmental impact as opposed to compensation.
The group visited JICA, which owns 10 percent of Myanmar Japan Thilawa Development (MJTD) – an entity with local investors, including MTSH and Japanese investors, that was set up to develop Zone A. The Japanese state agency is now in the process of conducting due diligence on Zone B, it told The Myanmar Times.
EarthRights International said JICA would be ignoring its own best practice guidelines and international standards if it approves a “seriously flawed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and proposed resettlement plan” for Zone B.
According to resettlement work plans published by the Yangon Region government and the SEZ management committee, 214 people will be affected by the initial 100-hectare Zone B development and over 600 people in a second 162-hectare development.
JICA told The Myanmar Times it had not found any breach of guidelines in the EIAs or resettlement plans prepared by MJTD, but said it appreciated the chance to hear concerns directly and would work with the Myanmar government to address any issues it finds are in need of resolution. The agency had not yet decided whether or not to invest in Zone B, it added.
EarthRights International and local residents are also planning to re-engage with the Thilawa SEZ management committee, which is made up of Myanmar government officials.
“The engagement had stalled a little for various reasons, but we hope to help increase dialogue,” said Katherine McDonnell, the NGO’s legal advocacy coordinator.
U Than Than Nwe, a member of the management committee, said last week that the committee would work to settle outstanding issues, but had not been made aware of the details of the affected residents’ recent visit to JICA.
The committee has responded to earlier complaints about similar problems from residents and NGOs in the past with detailed public statements. These included acknowledging the need to solve issues around water supply and transport for people resettled because of Zone A. But the committee has also defended the housing, resettlement and work plans, and compensation provided.
Local residents and NGOs like EarthRights International have also had structured dialogue with other stakeholders including JICA, the SEZ management committee and MJTD in the past.
A multi-stakeholder group was formed with help from the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB), which met to help discuss issues and complaints from affected residents in 2014 and 2015.
“It wasn’t intended for negotiation on land disputes but as a communication forum for groups that weren’t talking together back in 2014-15,” said Vicky Bowman, MCRB’s director, adding that the stakeholder group had “worked up to a point”.
Observers have noted that the size and complexity of the Thilawa project, the different stakeholders involved and the history of land ownership in the area create challenges.
A JICA examiner report from 2014 found that the land for Thilawa’s Zone A was expropriated by the Myanmar government in 1997 and residents were paid compensation – concluding that residents affected by Zone A’s development in 2013 did not in fact have a legal right to the land.
The Yangon Region government faces capacity issues and Myanmar lacks a legal framework for resettlement, which has made resettling already economically vulnerable residents more challenging. The JICA examiner’s report in 2014 found that the initial 68 households had been resettled hastily onto an unfinished site that lacked adequate drainage facilities.
Some issues, such as skills training programs criticised as irrelevant to resettled residents’ everyday lives, have been at least partly addressed. JICA also told The Myanmar Times it is providing technical assistance to the government to make sure resettlement is up to international standard.
One observer familiar with development in the zone, who asked to remain anonymous, said that JICA has also sought to negotiate additional support for those in debt as a result of the relocation, and provided support on improving the relocation site.
On environmental issues, a national EIA procedure put in place in December 2015 now provides an opportunity to clarify the legal and governance framework in which the Thilawa SEZ operates, Ms Bowman said.
These efforts are underway, and must make it clear that the zone and its projects are subject to the national Environmental Conservation Law with the environment ministry as the regulator, she added.
Meanwhile, the SEZ management committee, MTJD and the Yangon Region government need to employ enough community-sensitive staff to allow them to undertake effective two-way communication and grievance handling, Ms Bowman said. “Without that, there will continue to be problems.”
Thilawa is the most advanced of three special economic zones being developed, and other zones have also come under fire from locals and NGOs for a lack of community consultation.
“This is the first of what looks like many SEZs the country is hoping to implement,” said Ms McDonnell, adding that it would be mistake to allow Thilawa to set a bad example in terms of addressing potential negative effects.
‘The engagement had stalled for various reasons, but we hope to help increase dialogue’
Katherine McDonnell EarthRights International
Workers sit on the heavy machinery during the opening of the commencement ceremony for Thilawa special economic zone Project back in 2013.