Voices from Kamaungthwe — a strategic point for the Road Link connecting

Author: Thitipan Pattanamongkol / Sarakadee magazine

 

Dawei SEZ in Myanmar with Thailand

“Dawei Special Economic Zone” is the mega industrialization scheme planned for Dawei city, the capital of Tanintharyi Region in south-eastern Myanmar. For the “Dawei SEZ” to successfully materialize will significantly depend on these three auxiliary projects: Dawei Deep-Sea Port; Ka Lone Htar Reservoir & Dam project on Talaiya River to supply the industry; and Road Link project connecting Dawei SEZ with Thailand.

The Road Link project which will cut through both sides of the Tenasserim Mountain Range is particularly strategic in that it will allow convenient transport [of goods and people] between Dawei and Thailand.

Starting “Kilometer Zero” on a beach of Andaman Sea, the road will go through some abundant mangrove forest on the coast, cutting through lowland and many hills where ethnic groups such as Karen people live, and cross the Tenasserim mountain range which forms a natural border between Thailand and Myanmar. The end point of the route is Phunamron Border Post in Kanchanaburi province of Thailand which makes total distance of the road approximately 132 kilometers.

A decade ago, the original ambition was to build a massive land-bridge project which would comprise rails, natural gas pipelines, and a huge 8-lane road (200 meter-wide for each lane). However, the mega road plan was scrapped due to uncertainties surrounding development of the Dawei SEZ. In 2019, the Thai government had assigned NEDA (Neighbouring Countries Economic Development Cooperation Agency), which is a public organization, to conduct a “Survey and Detailed Design for Two-Lane Road Connecting Dawei Special Economic Zone to Myanmar-Thailand Border”.

The 8-lane road was downsized to 2-lane road.

Also later in 2019, NEDA (on behalf of the Thai government) is preparing to approve THB 4,500 million (approx. USD 128 million) soft-loan to Myanmar government at 0.1% fixed interest rate in order to complete the road construction. It is hoped to be a turning-point for Dawei SEZ scheme.

So before we push forward with the project, let us listen to local people who actually live in the communities being encroached by the road. These are voices from the other side of Tenasserim mountain range.

 

Notice: This article was produced from a field-trip supported by Earth Journalism Network, Internews; and the Thai Society for Environmental Journalists, Thai Journalist Association.

 

“The development agenda and the peace process are overlapped. Our priority now is to see substantial progress of the peace process, then we can discuss the road construction.” Pati Keh Doh, villager from Thabuchaung village

“Before 2010, people here lived in arme conflicts. It was not peaceful. Everybody lives in fear, fear of everything. And after that, there came development project. The road project was imposed on the village. It’s like we woke up from the war to the destruction of the road construction.”

“In fact, the development agenda and the peace process are overlapped. We’ve been struggling to live under armed conflict. Our livelihood is simple. We don’t have much knowledge, therefore we could not have much opinion. And we’ve been living in fear. So our priority now is to see substantial progress of the peace process, then after that we can discuss the road construction. For us villagers, if politics and governance are not stable, any decisions could be disrupted. We also doubt whether the armed conflict will affect the project; and also worried if the road construction will add complications to the peace talk.”

“At the beginning when they were pushing for Dawei SEZ and the deep-sea port, I went to visit Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate in Thailand to see with my own eyes. I met with communities who have lived there since even before the Map Ta Phut Industry established. They told me that compensations were paid for their lost properties; nonetheless they were not successful in resettling somewhere else. One family told me that after the industry were built, there are pollutions and the air become polluted. People in that area, including the family I talked to, have suffered from respiratory illnesses from breathing in the toxic air and all the pollutions. That family used to have 7 people but by then there were only 2 of them left; others had died of cancers and other diseases. They had to use parts of the compensation money to pay their medical bills and other health-related expenses. It was already impossible for them to relocate somewhere else.”

“Those villagers in Map Ta Phut that I talked to, they were farmers like us. They had mango orchards, pineapple plantations, etc. Eventually [due to pollution], the produces became inedible. They used to get water from water wells, but the water also became contaminated. All these make me question: do we want our homeland in Dawei to become like that? I shared the experiences with my fellow villagers and we decided to put up the sign declaring ‘We don’t want to be the second Map Ta Phut’.”

 

“Before starting the project, if they respect the rights of local communities, they should consult us.” U Ye Aung, villager from Kalaygyi village

“Whatever kinds of investments or projects to be imposed on our country, in our homeland, we want to see transparency. We want clear and unbiased information about the impacts, both positive and negative consequences from the project, in both short and long terms. And those involved should have clearly defined accountability.”

“Before starting the project, if they respect the rights of local communities, they should consult us. Consultation should happen before starting the project and also along the way during project implementation. We should discuss what and how the project will be in the initial phase, in the middle phase, and also in the final phase.”

“The money that NEDA will give as a loan for the road construction, that is tax money from Thai taxpayers. It is an investment, not given away for free like a development grant. An investment needs to return benefits to the investors. Investment is not free, there will be trade-offs, whether land or something else that we may have to lose in exchange of development.”

“Without substantial agreement nor proper consultation between Thai and Myanmar governments and the people to find good solutions, this development project doesn’t seem ethical and fair to us. We want genuine consultation and negotiation. They should consult us about the situation and how to proceed next.”

“Years ago the road project was halted. We thought the project is scrapped and so we had stopped our activity. Now it seems they are resuming the project. We heard that the initial survey was completed, which sounds like a rushed process. At the moment many people are not yet aware of the new process so they are not very active because the project activity had been quiet for some times.”

“What we want is for them to provide information about the project to the people. In video clips or any forms of media, if they provide us then we can disseminate among the locals. This is now a very early stage so we don’t think about compensation yet. We need to know what are they planning to do, in our communities, what will be the impacts, where and who will be affected. These are the main contents that we need to know right now in order to make further informed decisions.”

 

“The most serious incidence so far was when the road construction crew razed villagers’ betel-nut orchards without prior notice.” Saya Zaw Thura, former lecturer at Dawei University

“In 2010, villagers come together and found a group called Community Sustainable Livelihoods and Development or CSLD. It has representatives from 12 villages, 2 people from each village. We agreed to hold meetings once a month; each village takes turn to host this monthly meetings. People share information they have; situation and impacts [from the road project] that happen in the villages are also reported and discussed in the meetings.”

“CSLD is organized by the villagers and supported by the Karen National Union or KNU. In other words, KNU endorsed the founding of CSLD. Generally when CSLD has monthly meetings, KNU representative don’t attend. But when KNU holds meetings, representatives from the villages will participate. We can say that KNU has not had a formal role in the group.”

“So far the most serious incidence was when the road construction crew razed villagers’ betel nut orchards without prior notice [betel nut is one of the main cash crop in this area]. The company just brought in bulldozers and razed the orchards. In the past, for any projects planned to be implemented in any village here, officers will come to notify or talk to the villagers. Subsequently, even if villagers are informed, if they disagree and don’t cooperate, that project can’t be implemented. Be it mining or land adjustment activities, that’s the practice. In contrast, for this incidence, there was no waring. Many people were affected and they had to file complaints afterwards.”

“Many people found out after their orchards had already been razed. Later on they had to track down who did it. When this happened, the group called for a meeting, drafted a complaint, signed, and submitted to KNU authority and the Myanmar government. When KNU and the government received the petition, they would send written documents to the company. Subsequently, sometimes company personnels came to talk to the villagers but sometimes villagers directly invited the company to discuss with us.”

“The company has said that they already have permission from the government therefore they can clear the land and use this area. In some instances, the discussion or negotiation aggravated almost into fights. What came out of these negotiations are still ambiguous. It’s more like consultations with no solution nor agreement reached.”

“Regarding compensation, from our experience, there is no standard. Some people get less, some get more. Some people had 4 acres of their properties damaged nonetheless received no compensation. Some people were not at home when the officers came to their houses so they missed each other, and then the villagers had no information where to look for the officers. All in all, the villagers, the Myanmar government, the KNU, and the company — everyone don’t have a clear plan or agreement on what to do. Up until now, some people still have not received any compensation.”

“In the beginning, people who were affected started to form a group and tried to talk to the government. Back then, villagers were just sitting there and could only listen. Around 2014-2015, villagers began to have chances to express their concerns and make arguments. After some heated negotiations, the compensation may had somewhat improved. It was the period when villagers could still demand some compensation.”

“Normally, a good yield from 1 acre of betel nut orchards can earn the owner approximately 30-50 million Kyats per year. But actually they don’t grow only betel nuts in their acreage, villagers would grow varieties of fruits and vegetables like integrated farming. So there are more damages from just the destroyed betel-nut trees.”

“The road construction project also has extended impacts, for example, forest deterioration, sedimentation on topsoil, waterways shallowed, etc. We have estimated that thousands of acres have been affected.”

 

“Villagers here still rely a lot on the forest for our livelihoods and we rely on nature for food. For this reason, our food security and livelihood are severely affected.” Lay Lay Win, villager from Thabuchaung village

“Villagers here still rely a lot on the forest for our livelihoods and we rely on nature for food. For this reason, our food security and livelihood are severely affected.”

“In the past, when I went out food foraging, there were so many fish in the creeks and so many edible plants in the forest to pick. We used to get food from the forest, we didn’t have to buy food. Even if you didn’t have income, you could still go to the forest to find things to eat and you don’t need money.”

“But when the road construction began, sediments started to pile up on the topsoil so the wild edibles and vegetables won’t grow. Some natural water sources had dried out too so plants won’t grow well. The amount of food we are able to forage from the forest has greatly reduced. We used to simply eat vegetables from the forest and fish from the creeks. But now everything is gone. We have to buy food, we need to have money in order to survive.”

“To say what have changed before and after the road construction, it is difficult to put in numbers. But evidently the differences are immense. For example, from an acre of betel-nut orchards, I used to earn some 30 million Kyats per year. When the problems began, the yield has declined around half. I could get only 15 million Kyats from one acre per year. And these days if you don’t have money, you have to borrow from someone. So more people become in debt because they have to take loans. That’s an additional burden.”

“Back in 2013 when they began the road construction activity, we were told that it is going to be just a temporary road. But then there are a lot of impacts on the creeks, on the forest, and on water sources that the whole village were sharing. There are also impacts on our agricultural lands, the fields and fruits orchards. As someone who is directly affected, I want to see old problems from construction of the ‘temporary road’ (the previous construction) being solved first. They should resolve the old problems before starting new ones. This is what I want to tell everyone.”

 

You can read the original article in Thai here:  เสียงจาก “กลุ่มบ้านกาโมต่วย” จุดยุทธศาสตร์ที่ถนนเชื่อมทวาย-ไทยจะพาดผ่าน