The prospect of the development of the port of Dawei, on the Andaman Sea, has attracted significant international and regional attention. The project could turn Dawei into a vital hub for trade and industry in Southeast Asia and beyond. But it has also brought a warning—from residents in neighbouring Thailand who say a similar development has devastated their community and their health.
The projected Dawei Deep Seaport and Special Economic Zone is in Nabule village tract, Ye Phyu township, Tanintharyi Region. The governments of Myanmar and Thailand signed an agreement launching the project on May 19, 2008, granting the Italian-Thai Development company a 75-year concession to develop the area. The initial investment total is estimated at US$8.6 billion.
The project comprises three phases, to be carried out over a period of about 10 years, from 2010 to 2019.
During this period, the area will be transformed. Now home to rubber plantation workers and fishing communities, it will become a special economic zone comprising a deep-sea port linked by road to Thailand. The proposed plan includes a 160-kilometre long super highway to be constructed from the Thai-Myanmar border to the SEZ. A high-speed railway, electric grid, oil and gas pipelines, a fertiliser and petrochemical plant, a steel mill, and dockyard are also slated for construction.
The SEZ is planned to be 204.51 square kilometres in total.
Since the signing of the original agreement, progress slowed because of a lack of funds. But President U Thein Sein has agreed with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to accelerate the project. On November 7, Vice President U Nyan Tun and Thai Deputy Prime Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong reaffirmed the plan and announced an acceleration within three or four months.
This process is being closely watched by some on the other side of the Thai border. Sitting under a shady tree in his compound, Mr Loong Noi recounted his bitter experience over 30 years.
“During that time I lost my land and many members of my family,” he said. Mr Loong, 71, once lived happily on his extensive farm with the 12 members of his family. That was before the coming of the Mab Ta Phut industrial zone and its petrol-chemical industry in Thailand’s Rayong province.
“I continued to plant in my garden but the crops failed because of polluted water and heavy metals. And six members of my family died of cancer,” said Mr Loong.
As at Dawei, most of the residents of Mab Ta Phut before the development were engaged in farming and fisheries.
Mab Ta Phut Industrial Estates comprises five major estates, with industries ranging from oil refineries, gas separation plants, petrochemical works, metal foundries and power plants. There are 109 large factories in and around the site.
The developments were supposed to bring higher income and a better life. However, local residents said their hopes were dashed when the negative impact of the project began to emerge.
“We didn’t protest against this project because we didn’t receive any information about it,” said Mr Udon, 66, a village administrator in Mab Ta Phut.
Within 10 years of the launching of the project, local residents were complaining of the increased incidence of cancer, failing crops and declining fish yields.
“Factories throw their hazardous waste into the sea, into the air and other places. We are afraid of eating seafood caught near the industrial estate,” said Mr Udon.
The government health department has confirmed the presence of volatile organic compounds in Mab Ta Phut, as well as the contamination by heavy metals of well and ground water since 1998.
“Now we buy our water,” said Ms Patcharee, who lives in Chak Luk Ya, eight kilometres from Mab Ta Phut. “Open well water smells bad. We’re even afraid to be out in the rain, because the chemicals in the rainwater cause skin disease,” said Ms Patchree, showing her diseased skin.
Public health expert Mr Thanmanoon Achariyamet, of the Office of Occupational and Environmental Diseases in the province’s Health Department, agreed that local residents suffer cancer at three times the rate of other provinces, but was reluctant to attribute the health problems to the impact of Mab Ta Phut Industrial Estate.
“It is difficult to say all the health problems are caused by this estate. We have to take into account other sources, farmers who overuse fertiliser, or migrants who come to work in the estate, legally or illegally. But it is true that over the past 20 years, cancer rates have risen. Men get lung cancer and women get breast cancer,” said Mr Thanmanoon.
“We’re addressing the health problems,” he said. “The government has budgeted more money for Mab Ta Phut than for other provinces. On the other hand, government monitoring of violations of environmental law by industry is weak,” he added.
Mab Ta Phut’s economic importance has outweighed the protests of local residents. But then came the idea of Dawei.
According to the New York Times of November 27, 2011, the then Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said: “There are some industries not suitable to be located in Thailand, which is why we decided to move them to Dawei.”
Concerned groups in Myanmar have already begun to focus on the consequences.
“What’s important is transparency and the circulation of real information about the project,” said U Ohn, vice president of the Forest Resources and Environment Development Association (FREDA).
“We may need the special economic zone for the sake of economic development, but at the same time we need to think about the effects on the environment and social welfare. The Foreign Direct Investment Law has been enacted, but the relevant by-laws of the Environmental Law have not. So what laws will prevent irresponsible investment?”
The area around Dawei has already become the focus of intense interest by developers and real estate brokers, which has led to complicated issues with local residents. The SEZ will directly affect 18 villages, comprising 3984 households and 4075 families, accounting for a population of 23,120 who will have to relocate.
“We don’t want to move,” said Ko Lay Lwin who lives in Nabule village tract.
“We get enough income from the rubber plantation. We don’t think this project will create a better life for us. Even if we get reasonable compensation, it will take a long time to stabilise our lives,” he added.
U Zaw Aung, a researcher based in Thailand, said both governments should take into account the rights of the local people.
“Local residents were excluded from the mindset of policy makers,” he said.
Economic experts said the government would implement SEZs while balancing economic and social needs with the protection of the environment, in cooperation with civil society.
“Civil society is the strength of the state, not an anti-development group. We need to cooperate with them in the process of implementation,” U Set Aung, Deputy Union Minister for National Planning and the Economy told a workshop on Thilawa SEZ in Yangon in late October.
Local residents in Mab Ta Phut said they had heard some industries in the industrial zone there were moving to Dawei.
“We felt sorry when we heard this news. I want to inform and advise the people of Myanmar and of Dawei not to allow any project there without full information. It’s not enough just to believe the developer,” said Mr Loong. “I hope Dawei won’t become a second Mab Ta Phut.”
Dawei Development Association (DDA) was set up by local residents to collect information about the project and raise public awareness.
“We expect to come under more pressure to relocate and we will face more difficulties in the negotiation process. The government will have to listen to us, otherwise it won’t be democratic,” said DDA member Ko Ye Lin Myint.
U Tin Maung Swe, chairman of the Support Group for the Deep Sea Port and Special Economic Zone, said: “People have criticised this project because of the chemical industries and their fears of the effect on the environment and the social structure. We won’t accept any investment that could have a negative impact. We want labour-intensive industries that can produce value-added local products. We’re always thinking about the public interest.”