Res­i­dents re­quest Thi­lawa SEZ halt

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - STEVE GIL­MORE s.gil­more@mm­times.com

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

Photo: EPA

Work­ers sit on the heavy ma­chin­ery dur­ing the open­ing of the com­mence­ment cer­e­mony for Thi­lawa spe­cial eco­nomic zone Project back in 2013.

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