Jonathan de Luca
With a population of just under 150,000 Dawei city is the regional centre and capital of the Tanintharyi region. With the planning of a large Special Economic Zone spanning almost two hundred square kilometres, it is expected to take on an important role in the ASEAN region. The port zone and industrial activities are expected to be a major component of the ASEAN Economic Community’s corridor that spans Vietnam, Lao PDR, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar. Special Economic Zones are areas where certain industrial activities are preferentially developed, and usually involve policies that encourage industrialization such as tax breaks on import of industrial inputs, state-subsidized infrastructure development and sometimes labour policies that are more favourable to employers.
The expected rapid economic growth as a result of Dawei’s key place in the region is an opportune time to ensure that notions of resilience be built into development mechanisms. It’s for this reason the Urban Climate Resilience in Southeast Asia (UCRSEA) Partnership has chosen Dawei as a study city. As part of the UCRSEA project, an exchange trip was organized to Dawei in October 2016. On this trip partners from Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam were able to come together and learn about the Dawei Special Economic Zone.
The trip included various activities that had the partners engage with representatives from citizens groups, developers, local officials and academics, as well as villagers living within the Dawei Special Economic Zone. Through meetings and interactions, UCRSEA partners are able to string together a story about the development of the economic zone.
The group had an opportunity to better understand the different components of the SEZ as well as meet with all the stakeholders involved. One major learning of the visit is the importance of transparency and communication with community stakeholders. In speaking with groups, it is evident that clear and transparent dialog must be the foundation on which the DaweiSEZ is based. For instance, developers believe they are fulfilling their legal obligations by performing environmental impact assessments, creating communication materials and opening an information centre on-site. Despite these efforts, villagers living within the Special Economic Zone feel that they have not been consulted and don’t understand what the positive gains will be. According to villagers, they are waiting to find out how it will affect their lives, if they aren’t among those who have already been affected by the changes in the irrigation system or by the development of quarries to feed the needed construction inputs.
“The government can get profits and businessmen can get profits,” said a local activist. “But on the other hand, on the ground, our people are not ready so we are really afraid about this, about human rights abuse… land grabbing, seed grabbing… We need to find a different way to solve this.”
Many of the villagers mentioned that they would not necessarily oppose the DSEZ if it improved their quality of life, however, the project in its current iteration does not do benefit them, so they oppose it. The determination of the villagers and the civil society organizations supporting them to keep fighting for transparency and the protection of their human rights is an inspiring lesson that the rest of the UCRSEA network can learn from.
In the coming years, UCRESA will continue to visit other focus cities through Collaborative City Exchange trips. Hopefully, we will continue to learn from local multi-stakeholders and deepen our understanding of the complex issues facing the region as a whole so that we can come together to create solutions that work for the best interests of all GMS residents.