Public robbed of Dawei say

Bangkok Post 22 May 2012


The government's decision to pour a massive amount of money into a single project in Myanmar deserved a much better public debate. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and ministers took advantage of a special cabinet meeting in Kanchanaburi province to pull a very fast vote on an issue that is little understood.

The short version is that 33.11 billion baht of taxpayers' money has been approved for 203 assorted projects at Dawei. The plans call for the sleepy town formerly called Tavoy to be transformed into a major port and industrial estate. But the Thai government is moving faster than even the Myanmar government, and it risks being on the wrong end of these plans.

On the positive side, it is clear that the "new" Myanmar is committed to rapid industrial development. Despite opposition and doubts, Dawei will be part of the plan to bring industry to the country. Even more to the point, the location of Dawei makes it as potentially important to Thailand and other neighbours as to Myanmar itself.

Geographically, Dawei is almost directly west of Kanchanaburi and Bangkok. In a straight line, the town is closer to Bangkok than to Yangon, the Myanmar commercial centre. By road, it is only about half as far from Dawei to Bangkok than to Yangon. The vision of the Thai business community is to link Kanchanaburi and Dawei with first-class roads, and make a "land bridge" from the new Myanmar port to Thailand.

That is about all the good news there is, and it seems questionable whether it is worth 33.11 billion baht of Thai money.

The construction firm Italian-Thai Development Plc (ITD) seems certain to win major construction contracts for Dawei. The cabinet felt on Sunday that it needed to proceed immediately with projects such as new roads, an upgraded information system and even an overflow dam in Ratchaburi province.

The National Economic and Social Development Board stated flatly that Dawei will add 1.9% to Thailand's gross domestic product.

But while officials present Dawei as "a done deal," huge questions remain. Last January, the government confronted public opposition to plans for an ITD plan to build a 4,000 megawatt coal-fired power plant.

In April, a public protest began at Dawei itself. Reports said some 20,000 villagers will be forced to move to make way for the port and industrial estate.

Stories appeared in the Myanmar media that generals who still dominate local politics were wielding their influence so that foreign firms could begin construction. It is still far from clear how the reform government of President Thein Sein will handle public protests.

The economic benefits of the Dawei industrial zone and port are apparent enough. Yet the government has put Thailand and vital public revenues at risk for a project whose future looks to be far from clear. The public has also been given no notice or voice in this major expenditure.

Businesses such as ITD are free to risk investing where they please. Thai companies deserve support, but rarely should that extend to providing actual money. The Dawei investment deserved more study and debate than the government provided.