Split visions of Dawei’s future as Thailand, Myanmar restart special economic zone project

The governments of Thailand and Myanmar are set to restart the development of the Dawei deep-sea port and special economic zone, after both countries set up a joint coordinating committee to work out investment details of the project.

In 2008, both countries signed a memorandum of understanding to develop a massive land area of 200 square-kilometres and a pristine beach in Myanmar’s Tanintharyi region into the Dawei special economic zone and deep-sea port.

Initially, the project was managed under government concession by a Thai private construction firm, Italian-Thai Development (ITD), but the project’s complexities and local resistance in Myanmar has stalled work time and again.

The change of government in Myanmar after the 2015 general elections has also cast doubt over the future of Dawei project.

“It took some time for the new Myanmar government to sort out various issues, and now contacts have been made,” Porametee Vimolsiri who is the Secretary-General of Thailand’s National Economic and Social Development Board told Channel NewsAsia.

“The National League for Democracy government has now studied the Dawei project and clearly assigned a team to oversee this, and that is progress,” he said.

Porametee said the project is now divided into two investment phases, with the first concentrating on developing a small industrial zone of about 28.8 square-kilometres. The first phase will include areas for factories, a small port, a power plant, and a residential area for workers.

“This first phase will need to be commercially viable first before we can design the expansion and scale of investment for the next phase that will involve large industrial areas and the deep-sea port,” Porametee said.

Anxious for a quick restart, the Thai military government has already set aside US$130 million in soft loans for a new highway linking the planned economic zone to the Thai border.

“This year we should see some progress in infrastructure development like the road expansion, perhaps towards the end of the year,” said Newin Sinsiri who is the president of the Neighbouring Countries Economic Development Cooperation Agency (NEDA), which is the Thai government’s development bank.

“But the project will take time. Our masterplan is not designed only for the next five to 10 years but 20 years,” said Newin.

The new highway would link Dawei to Bangkok and other industrial areas in central and eastern Thailand while the deep-sea port would give industries based in Thailand new maritime access to India, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

The Dawei project would also complement the existing development of the southern economic corridor in mainland Southeast Asia, which links Vung Tau, Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, and Thailand’s Eastern Seaboard, and Bangkok via a network of roads, and in the future, railroads as well as coastal ports.

“This project answers the need of Thailand which has long wanted a deep-sea port access to the Andaman Sea,” said Associate Professor Ruth Banomyong, the head of the Department of International Business, Logistic, and Transport at Thammasat University.

“But for Myanmar, their biggest challenge is to figure out where they want their first deep-sea port to be located. Their industrial heartland is not where Dawei is,” said Assoc Prof Ruth.

Myanmar is currently expanding its port at Thilawa, near Yangon, with the support from the Japanese government. Thilawa however is not a deep-sea port.

Myanmar is also working with Chinese company to develop a deep-sea port and special economic zone in Kyaukpyu in western Rakhine State on the Bay of Bengal. Like Dawei, the Kyaukpyu deep-sea port is a long-term development.

“From what we have seen, Kyaukpyu has been supported by the Chinese, Thilawa supported by the Japanese, and Dawei supported by Thailand, but we have not really seen a project where it’s a 100 per cent Myanmar which serves its own interest,” said Assoc Prof Ruth.

Beyond the geopolitical implications and potential benefit from the Dawei project, its development has been facing opposition from the local community.

Many have complained about the lack of fair compensation when forced to leave their homes to make way for construction. These include Karen villages near the Thai border as well as Dawei communities in and around project areas.

The Kalonehtar village, for instance, is located on a site of future hydropower dam that will be built to generate power for future factories. The locals strongly oppose the building of the dam.

“I think the investment will only benefit the investors. There’s no benefit for the local community,” sad Pin Nyar Wantha, the jead monk of the village and community leader.

“After the special economic zone was implemented here, we’ve been trying to find a way to protect the people, their basic rights and their participation in the development process here,” said Thant Zin who is the head of a local civil society group the Dawei Development Association.

“We don’t think the project can bring real development here if it threatens the livelihood of the local people. I think there must be room for the local people to be consulted as much as there are rooms for the governments and private companies in the development of Dawei,” said Thant Zin.

In 2013, the villagers and local civil society groups in Dawei lodged an official complain to Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which is now investigating the negative impacts of the Dawei project development.

The commission has been instructed by the Thai government to set a new business standard for Thai companies and state agencies operating abroad, based on the United Nation’s guiding principles on business and human rights.

The controversy in Dawei has sparked comparison to the push in the 1980s to industrialise Thailand’s Phuket province. Locals there opposed the move and came up with their own development plan.

“If the people are united in seeing the potential of their community, their culture, and their natural resources and ecosystem, then they should be able to show the government what development they want,” said Tuenjai Deetes who is the commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand who is leading the Dawei investigation.

“Like in Phuket where we have world-class tourism businesses because people there choose that path,” said Tuenjai.

Thai environmentalists have often cited Phuket as an example of how the economy adjusts itself when people opposes state planned industrialisation. For Phuket, the people’s opposition to heavy industries has resulted in an economic development that focuses on tourism and other related service industries.

Some civil society groups in Dawei have also used Phuket as a case study for their work in Dawei.

“What has happened in Dawei resembles what had happened in the development of many special economic zones in Thailand, said Pakpoom Withantinawat, a member of NHRC subcommittee on community rights.

“I think development should enable the locals to benefit. But if development brings about progress at their expense and locals have to leave their land, then that should not be called development at all.”

Source: Channel News Asia