Dawei port faces growing public backlash

Myanmar Times 26 March – 1 April 2012

MAYINGYI, Dawei – Public anger is rising over a planned deep-sea port set to displace thousands of villagers, as recent political reforms galvanise grassroots opposition to industrial mega-projects.

The multi-billion-dollar Dawei development is a key element of the impoverished country’s plans to transform its economy, giving wealthier neighbours such as Thailand an outlet to the Indian Ocean and markets to the West.

But with a new government pursuing a series of dramatic reforms in Myanmar, villagers living near the sleepy stretch of southern coastline are daring to speak out in opposition.

“We don’t want to move. Our region has coconuts, betel nuts, cashew nuts, tamarinds. We have everything we need,” said U San Nyein, a 53-year-old farmer in the village of Mayingyi.

Up to 20,000 people are set to be relocated from a verdant stretch of land along the Andaman coast near the border with Thailand, said an official estimate.

The authorities have promised to resettle the villagers in new homes with access to schools, hospitals and shops, as well as running water and electricity.

The Dawei plan includes a 250 square kilometre (100 square mile) industrial area with a steel mill, petrochemical plant and oil refinery.

It is among a number of ambitious foreign-funded projects which started before the long-ruling junta handed over power last year to a new quasi-civilian government whose ranks are filled with former generals.

Locals initially felt powerless to refuse to move for the development – led by Thai industrial giant Ital-Thai – in a country where the junta was for decades able to snatch land at will.

But people are now testing the mostly civilian government’s vow to listen to public opinion.

“We do not want to go anywhere,” said U Tin Hlaing, a 56-year-old fisherman from the village of Ngapitet. “The sea has fed us since we were young. Where should we go to fish if we have to move to a new town?”

Last September, environmentalists won a rare victory as President U Thein Sein suspended construction of a US$3.6 billion Chinese-backed hydropower project in Kachin State, in a rare response to public opposition.

The government has also announced that it is blocking a 4000-megawatt coal-fired plant that was to be built at Dawei.

The villagers living near the port site now hope their homes and land will be spared from the bulldozers. And their cause may be helped by apparent funding troubles at the developer.

There is little evidence of construction yet apart from access roads, and villagers said the amount of money they were initially offered had been drastically reduced.

Ital-Thai is “having trouble raising the funds and that is of no surprise at all because the numbers that they are talking about are absolutely vast”, said Mr Sean Turnell, an expert on the Myanmar economy at Macquarie University in Sydney.

“There’s been a real turnaround of investor sentiment in the project and I think that’s the thing which is really slowing it.”

The developer insists all is going to plan, with negotiations under way to raise investment of $4.5 billion for the first phase of development, which it says will be followed by a second phase requiring an additional $8.5 billion.

It also says the final project could eventually be worth up to $50 billion.

“The funds are coming in,” said Mr Somchet Thinaphong, who oversees the project for the Thai industrial giant.

The Myanmar authorities “have actually urged us to accelerate the plan and supported us with globally competitive laws and regulations. There’s nothing to be worried about,” he added.

But locals fear their way of life will change forever, and are anxious about being relocated to an urban setting.

“I was born here. I want to stay here,” said 64-year-old farm owner U Than Myint. “We do not understand cities – they are all the same.” – AFP