By Daniel Aguirre & Vani Sathisan
“We don’t want electricity when there is no rice to cook in the pot. Without our land, we have no job, and no food,” a villager from Pyai Sate Kay village told us during our recent trip to the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ).
After several days of speaking with villagers and civil society organizations (CSOs), it became clear that the newest SEZ in Burma (Myanmar) – Kyaukphyu, an island off strife-ridden Rakhine State – is displacing local communities without proper compensation and accountability for loss of land and livelihoods.
CSOs in Kyaukphyu expressed concern about inadequate consultation, compensation and a lack of accountability for human rights violations in the context of forced evictions – all common complaints at other SEZs in Burma.
The government should avoid the circumstances that have led to human rights violations in Dawei and Thilawa SEZs. To be consistent with international human rights law, any development project should be planned, designed and undertaken in respect to the fundamental principles of participation, transparency and accountability. Many CSOs are also calling for free prior and informed consent to be applied to local communities.
While the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and the Thai government helm the Thilawa and Dawei SEZ respectively, the Kyaukphyu SEZ is crucial for a Chinese business corridor. China National Petroleum Corporation has installed a natural gas pipeline connecting the offshore Shwe gas field with China’s Yunnan province. Locals already refer to the Kyaukphyu SEZ as the Chinese Economic Zone.
The Burmese government has awarded a consortium of five companies led by Singapore’s CPG Corporation to consult on the Kyaukphyu SEZ, which will include a deep-sea port, industrial zone, residential developments, dams and resevoirs. The SEZ’s reported goal is to become a “mini Singapore” – replicating the city-state’s economic success in impoverished Rakhine state.
Singapore is hardly how the residents of Kyaukphyu describe their current surroundings. The residents we interviewed were less impressed by the plans and questioned the project’s legitimacy.
There is a lack of information about the project. Very few in the community appeared to understand its legal framework or with whom they should liaise for consultation. No CSO had heard of an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA). The SEZ Committee holds irregular information sessions at short notice. In a context of mistrust of the government, people seemed bemused by notions of consultation, meaningful engagement, transparency or accountability for violations.
Land tenure was central to the complaints we heard. The SEZ is expected to take up an initial 1,000 acres of land and later grow to 4,000. Few of the villagers had land titles despite having tax receipts to prove they lived there. Many relied on customary land demarcation. Farmers complained that land titles were expensive and difficult to obtain without bribery. Without land titles they would not receive compensation.
Compensation was below market rates. Villagers were given no choice – officials arrived and told them that a dam would be built; they could accept this level of compensation or get nothing, but the construction would still go on.
No CSOs reported having access to any type of remedy, whether legal or informal. There was no expectation that the government should ensure access to justice if they had complaints. Communities are reluctant to challenge government decisions were generally unaware of their right to do so.
Despite the potential economic growth, local communities fear that they will not benefit. The SEZ law requires investors to employ Burma workers but the local workforce may not satisfy the qualifications demanded. Without vocational training or a local source of qualified labour, workers will have to migrate to the area in large numbers. This is worrisome in an area of Muslim-Buddhist conflict, where further disparity may fuel conflict. The conflict has already displaced 140,000; we saw camps of Internally Displaced People in Kyaukphyu Township.
The consortium was expected to draw up an “involuntary resettlement sourcebook” ensuring that any displacement of people would follow World Bank guidelines. The World Bank Group’s President, earlier this year, had acknowledged serious shortcomings in the Bank’s resettlement policies, including the failure to have strong tracking systems to ensure policies were followed properly.
In 2015, the Burma government should be able to develop a major international SEZ in a rights-compliant manner.
To do so, SEZs should at a minimum have clear ESIAs that address human rights concerns and be made publically available. If any land has to be expropriated, the residents should be compensated at market value for the land as well as for lost livelihoods.
Most importantly, those affected must have access to remedy when the project violates their rights and access to due process ensured. If not they will protest, as seen in the thousands of land dispute cases around the country.
Burma now has the opportunity to show the world that it has changed the way it does business. It must start by showing that developing an SEZ in 2015 is different than under the previous regime and that the human rights of those who may be negatively affected will be protected.
About the authors:
Daniel Aguirre and Vani Sathisan are the International Legal Advisers (Burma) for the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).