Dawei feeling pains of development and displacement

Bangkok Post 18 March 2012

By Songpol Kaopatumtip & Myint Shwe

With the massive transformation of this sleepy coastal region to a deep sea port and world-class industrial centre already under way, locals are forced to deal with relocation and total disruption of their way of life.

Thi Cho had been having sleepless nights since a small fishing community not far from her home was relocated a week earlier to make way for the multi-billion-baht Dawei development project.

''I don't know where they went,'' said the 28-year-old housewife, referring to the 30 residents of Byitni hamlet, located about 1.5km from her village on Charkam Beach.

The two groups of villagers have been living along the pristine coastline for more than 50 years, relying on fisheries and small-scale farming for their livelihoods.

Thi Cho's neighbour Mar Lar, a grocery store owner, is also very concerned about the future. ''My friend in Byitni said each family was offered three million kyat [about 120,000 baht] in compensation and a new house would be built for them at a new location.'' But, she added, her friend does not know how she will make a living there.

Mar Lar's words were echoed in other communities and villages set for relocation from now until 2015, when the first phase of the Dawei Special Economic Zone development is scheduled to be completed. Major infrastructure will be developed in this 250 square kilometre area.

The second phase will be devoted to the construction of the Dawei deep sea port, and the third phase will involve setting up an industrial estate, which is likely to become the largest in Southeast Asia. The industrial estate will encompass six zones, for the port, heavy industry, oil and gas, upstream and downstream petrochemical product complexes, medium industry and light industry.

A dirt road stretching about 160km to Thailand has been laid, but bulldozers are still clearing land around the construction site. There are buildings for offices and staff quarters – and many more villagers to be relocated.

Unlike the rest of the peninsula which joins Malaysia to the south, where hillsides are covered mainly with oil palms and rubber plantations, the projected Dawei development area is mostly flat and dotted with rice fields, rubber and cashew nut plantations, villages and temples.

According to a local official, developer Dawei Development Co Ltd (see box) will pay compensation to the villagers but has yet to complete the homes to which they will be relocated. Securing a stable source of electricity has posed a major problem, since the Myanmar government abruptly halted construction of a 4,000 megawatt coal-fired power plant in the area on Jan 10, citing environmental concerns.

The government move has emboldened a small advocacy group formed to monitor this gigantic project, the Dawei Development Association,which has raised concerns that as many as 32,000 people living within the first development zone would be displaced. There are also 21 primary schools and 23 Buddhist temples in the zone. But there is one especially important religious spot that the locals are trying to save – a nationally revered pagoda with a Buddha footprint in the village of Nabu Le.

At the southeastern edge of this development zone, villagers are rallying behind the abbot of Mayin-gyee temple in his attempt to save the monastery and its three-century-old stupa. Abbot U Aw Bartha says the temple could be spared if the developers realise that the temple compound is small and is on the very edge of the development zone. If his appeal is ignored, he will write to President Thein Sein asking for help.

''It will be tragic if these ancient sites are gone for the sake of development,'' said the abbot.


Asked for his overall impression of the Dawei project, U Aung Thein Lin, one of the Central Executive Committee members of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), said he was astonished by the actions and protests against it.

''We are already selling you our gas,'' he said, referring to a natural gas pipeline a few dozen kilometres north of the Dawei project, built more than a decade ago by the US oil company Chevron and the French oil company Total, which delivers fuel to generate electricity for greater Bangkok.

''This [Dawei project] is another big step that will benefit us. In fact it is a win-win step, isn't it?'' he said. ''The most important benefit will be the creation of many jobs for the people of our country.''

When asked about the environmental impact of clearing the forest and building the various industries and factories, Thein Lin admitted there could be some negative effects. However, having lived in the area as a military commander fighting insurgents in the past, he said such adverse impacts would be minimal as the 250 sq km lot is situated mainly on the edge of the coastal area and not deep into the interior, and that it is covered mainly with rubber plantations. The evergreen primary forest vanished a long time ago.

''The anticipated impact on the environment by the industrialisation can be controlled and mitigated to keep it to a minimum,'' he said.

According to Dawei Development Co, which is a unit of the Thai developers, three types of houses – large, medium and small – will be built for the relocated families. This is similar to the housing units built for those affected by the suspended Myitsone Dam in Kachin state. The Chinese company which invested US$3.6 billion (111 billion baht) there has also supplied these new homes with electricity and basic necessities such as rice, in addition to a lump sum of money in compensation, said Thein Lin.

In Dawei, where the cost of living is higher than in Kachin state, the villagers said they had not heard anything about electricity or a food supply for their new homes. They were offered only three million kyat in compensation.

Spectrum went to the offices of the Temporary Assistance and Supervisory Committee for Dawei Development Co, manned by U Tin Maung Swe, to hear their side of the story, but our team was shooed away by a staff member who said Maung Swe was unavailable. No one there could answer anything on his behalf.

At the offices of the Thai construction site, we were met by Surin Vichian, Italian-Thai Development's project manager for the Dawei development. He later received a phone call from a Burmese official who asked him why he talked with the media. After that meeting, Mr Surin was emailed twice asking for further information on the relocation plan, but there was no reply.

For people in the affected area, the biggest concern is the destruction of their livelihoods. For decades, millions of people from peninsular Myanmar have come to Thailand for jobs. In Dawei, mostly old folks are left behind, growing rice and working in rubber and cashew nut plantations. Changing careers is hard for these people and as yet the Dawei Development Co has no plans for them along those lines.

Villagers interviewed by Spectrum said their wish would have been to be relocated somewhere near Dawei city and be offered a reasonable amount of compensation so that they could engage in vending, small retail businesses and services in town. They don't know if they can make a living in the locations that have been chosen for them.

Commenting on the compensation locals were given for land, Thein Lin said: ''The usual practice should be that a consensual agreement be reached through a series of negotiations. And if no agreement is reached, the company should meet the demand of the landholders ultimately.''

According to the Myanmar constitution, all the land belongs to the state. The farmers know this. But in the Dawei case, the Myanmar government fully supports the development project. ''The villagers may bargain for higher compensation, but they ultimately have to yield to the pressure,'' said a Myanmar lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.


According to a local official, the first batch of 430 out of 3,458 households within the first-phase development zone will be relocated this month. Eight local companies which have won bids from the government will build new homes for them in new locations, as decided by the authorities.

But anger has arisen, not only among those forced out of their homes but also landholders living next to relocation sites. Some landholders have taken action to protect their property.

An elderly couple said they were offered 900,000 kyat for a 10-rai rice field that will be turned into a relocation site. The realistic market price of this plot of land is 10 million kyat, they claimed.

After the couple declined the offer, a bulldozer was sent to build a roadway right in the middle of their rice field. The elderly farmers were furious. The wife, crying in protest, jumped in front of the bulldozer, forcing it to stop.

At that moment her husband, U San Shwe, took his machete and rushed toward the Thai driver, who quickly beat a retreat.

The next day, San Shwe called U Myat Ko, the premier of the Tanin Tharyi Region, and verbally filed a complaint. The premier subsequently halted road construction. Since then the old farmer has been visited by some acquaintances who persuaded him to vacate the land and accept compensation.

Actually, this plot of land is outside the boundary of the first phase of development. But it is in front of another plot of land earmarked for those to be relocated. San Shwe said an access road could be re-routed to spare his farm, but the developers insisted on building it right in the middle of his rice field.

Rice cultivation is crucial for the survival of locals here. The flat plains of Dawei do not produce a sufficient amount of rice, so more has to be imported from other parts of Myanmar.

The developers also have plans to dynamite a number of mountains for rocks that will be used for road construction, according to a local official.

Large quantities of rocks are needed to pave the 160km road linking Dawei to the Thai border. But farmers cultivating rice below the mountains fear that debris coming down from the demolished mountains will damage their farms.

The local official said upgrading the road to Thailand is the first important step that will encourage investment in the project, as all existing roads are in poor condition.


Dawei traditionally has three industries: agriculture, fishing and mining. A short drive from the city is the white sand Maung Ma Gan Beach, which has yet to be developed for international tourism. Roads and side streets in the inner-city area are lined with beautiful colonial style buildings, guest houses, shops and restaurants.

Local traders and businesspeople are eager to share the benefits from economic development. They hope there will be greater demand for food and other local products, as well as tourism-related services.

Office workers look forward to higher paid jobs once the port facilities become operational.

This optimism is not shared by many young Dawei men who have gone to work in Thailand.

Phet, who has worked as an electrician in Bangkok for 10 years, said he and many of his friends from Dawei had returned home to look for new job opportunities, and all of them were disappointed.

''The daily wage offered to the locals is only 140 baht day,'' he said.

''I earned more than 20,000 baht a month working in Bangkok, and my boss is nice. So I will go back to Thailand,'' he said, his friends nodding in agreement.

At the office of the Thai construction site, an accountant dismissed the rumour that some Myanmar brokers might have taken a service fee from the Myanmar workers.

''We pay directly to both Thai and Myanmar workers,'' she said, adding that the daily wage rate for Thai workers is 300 baht, and 140 baht for Myanmar workers.

''Some Myanmar business operators have expressed their concerns. They are afraid that if we pay our Myanmar workers 300 baht a day, those working for them would demand the same rate,'' she said.

For many villagers like Thi Cho, the main concern is not money, but the many uncertainties that will come with the loss of their present livelihoods.

At her age, and with no other skills than repairing fishing nets, she is probably too old to undergo job training.

Wandering around the Exhibition Hall within the construction site, a group of visitors from Dawei city may be pondering a similar fate.

They all seemed lost as they walked around the open-air pavilion, where large, colourful posters of the Dawei project are on display.

''I don't understand what it is,'' said Daw Mya Win, a 57-year-old housewife, when we asked for her opinion. ''Can you read me the captions?''

Strangely, they are all in English.