The fight for resources in Myanmar’s deep south

Tanintharyi Region, the southern tip of Myanmar, abounds with natural resources and the problems associated with them.

Residents in the isolated region face over-mining by foreign companies, the proposed development of a deep-sea port, an oil refinery and a special economic zone, mechanised farming of rubber and palm oil, an illegal trade in timber, overfishing, migration, and coal-fired power plants.

All these problems and more are piling up in the in-tray of Chief Minister Daw Lae Lae Maw, the National League for Democracy MP for Thayatchaung township, Dawei district.

She spoke to The Myanmar Times in a recent, exclusive interview and identified two main priorities.

“I will bring electricity prices down under K100 per unit across the region. I will also bring back two- thirds of our migrant workers,” she said, adding that the region’s natural resources should be used to develop the local economy, not extracted and sold overseas.

Tanintharyi is not connected to the national grid – residents and civil society groups have occasionally protested after being forced to pay up to K600 for one unit of electricity, which costs K50 in Yangon.

On average, power in Tanintharyi costs K300 per unit, and will only become cheaper if the national grid is extended. The alternative is to buy gas from Thailand.

There may be a certain attraction about the idea of a coal-fired power plant in a region notorious for charging the highest electricity prices in the country, but local residents oppose the idea.

Protests have already led to the shuttering of one such plant, in the southern city of Kawthoung, because of its impact on the environment.

In the chief minister’s scheme of things, the promise of ecotourism is greater than that of coal.

“I can’t allow the building of coal-fired plants in my region. Daw Suu [Aung San Suu Kyi] asked me about this before I become chief minister and I told her I was opposed. I would rather try to get financing for gas turbines, as gas is plentiful here,” said Daw Lae Lae Maw.

However, the regional government has no authority to block large projects approved by Nay Pyi Taw.

“I want the regional government to play a role in deciding on projects in the region and I hope the central government will do nothing to harm the community,” she said.

Recently, more than 2400 people from Launglon township in Dawei district wrote to the chief minister about a coal plant under discussions in Yamezu by a Myanmar-Korean joint venture called 24 Hour Mining & Industry Company, asking for clarity on the rules and regulations governing the project.

On a quiet stretch of coast just south of Dawei, villagers are protesting a multi-billion-dollar oil refinery to be built by military-run Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Chinese developer Guangdong Zhenrong Energy Co.

It will be the first oil refinery the commodity-trading company has built and residents say they have been given very little information about the project, though it will dramatically change their lives.

Not too far from the refinery, a massive international development is being planned. The Dawei special economic zone will cover 27 square kilometres in its first phase, rising to an eventual 204.5 sq km, according to local activists.

Following the relocation of six villages, nearly K243 billion has been spent on compensating residents for the 12,000 hectares of community land included in the zone, though disputes over the amount of compensation and the quality of the land to which former owners have been relocated rumble on.

The zone was supposed to bring jobs and spur regional development. But though several major agreements have been signed since 2008, there seems little to show for the past eight years.

“Any kind of investment has to take the effects on the local community carefully into account. With this SEZ, the compensation has not been managed systematically. If you relocate someone, you have to create a livelihood there, or how will they survive?” said Daw Lae Lae Maw, adding that Thai companies had shown a different attitude to the problems raised.

Ko Lay Lwin, founder of the civil society group the Dawei Development Association, said the Myanmar government had adopted rules and laws that favoured foreign investors over its own people.

“Myanmar has excess cheap labour, weak legislation governing environmental impact, outdated laws, and unclear compensation rules. The basic wage is still cheap at US$3.50 a day,” he said.

The location of SEZs in Rakhine State and Tanintharyi Region was seen as a way by the previous government to attract migrant workers back home.

Ko Lay Lwin said, “The intention was good, but the incentives offered for local labour are terrible. The investors never want local skilled labour. The government has to tackle existing issues before starting up new projects.”

Mining projects, too, have pitted local people against powerful companies. Up to 27 mining companies were active in the region last fiscal year, looking for tin, tungsten and gold.

According to a regional government newsletter, five big sites covering almost 9175 acres (3670 hectares) and 11 small sites totalling 523 acres (213ha) are operational in Dawei district.

In Myeik district there are four big sites (1488ha) and 12 small sites (235ha) and in Kawthoung district, six small sites (71ha) are being mined.

Myanmar Pongpipat, Ngwe Tun Tauk and Delco, the biggest operators in Dawei district, face community opposition amid allegations that mining waste is harming the environment and destroying livelihoods.

“Nine residents of Myaung Pyo village launched a suit against Myanmar Pongpipat over the Heinda tin nine years ago,” said resident Daw Tin Hla.

“But the company didn’t respond. We’ve been asking them to transport their waste elsewhere rather than throwing it in the creek beside the village, killing fish and destroying our crops. The company has paid no compensation.”

The residents hope the new government will take action.

Meanwhile, Kan Pauk village residents are petitioning the regional government and the Resources and Environment Ministry to deal with the problems they say are caused by Delco.

“Delco executives told regional officials they would dig out the creek that had been contaminated and remove the waste. We are waiting to see if they do so,” said Daw Lae Lae Maw.

The company says it has launched a program to develop and regenerate the mine site, aiming to improve the environment and provide support to local communities.

Daw Lae Lae Maw said mining projects permitted under the previous government would now be scrutinised to ensure compliance with the new mining law and all other existing rules and regulations.

Source: The Myanmar Times

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