The Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and deep-sea port, if realized, would be one of the largest of its kind in Southeast Asia. Since the beginning, the project has fueled massive concerns by many local communities as well as Myanmar and Thai civil society groups, who have documented the social and environmental impacts and implications of the mega-project in several reports (see “Voices from the Ground” by the Dawei Development Association (DDA) , and “Our lives not for sale” by the Tavoyan Women Union (TWU)).
The Dawei SEZ was initiated in 2008 as a jointly owned bilateral economic cooperation project between the governments of Thailand and Myanmar . The project is comprised of an industrial estate area containing a deep seaport, an oil refinery complex, a steel mill, a fertilizer and petrochemical plant, a pulp and paper processing plant, other industrial factory complexes and one or more electric power plants . The infrastructure required to establish and run the SEZ extends, however, well beyond the economic zone itself. In order to supply the necessary resources and to enable international trade, the project also includes a road to Thailand and other transport links, the construction of new oil and gas pipelines to Thailand, a large water supply dam in the hills Northeast of the SEZ, a smaller port to the South, a stone quarry for construction materials in the North, waste management facilities, and several resettlement areas for the displaced villagers .
Following the initial agreements in 2008, land was cleared in certain areas to commence infrastructure development. In 2010, a 60 year concession was granted to the project contractor Italian-Thai Development Plc. (ITD). Most works have been carried out in the name of the Dawei Development Company (DDC), which is a subsidiary of ITD (75%) and Max Myanmar (25%). The latter withdrew its investment in July 2012 and the project was consequently stalled. In November 2013, the concession rights for the project were transferred to a new company, referred to as ‘Special Purpose Vehicle’ (SPV), jointly owned by the governments of Myanmar and Thailand (for a chronology of events between 2008-2013, see ). Soon after (December 2013), the project was temporarily suspended, but negotiations and the search for adequate investors continued . In 2015, the resumption of the project was announced, especially after the Japanese Government got involved by signing a Memorandum of Intent (MoI) with Thailand and Myanmar in July 2015 [5;6]. As of 2018, some preparatory and initial works have been completed, such as land clearing around the area of “Km 0” (the start of the international road to Thailand), a quarry, a small port, a visitor center, housing facilities, a resettlement area and other industrial infrastructure.
The project development has been accused of severe misconduct and adverse impacts, including a lack of transparency, a lack of meaningful consultations, violation of communities’ rights to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), severe human rights abuses such as forced evictions, lack of meaningful compensation, inflated employment estimates, corruption, environmental destruction, land grabbing, pollution and blocking of rivers and fishing areas, livelihood loss, and the harassment of people opposing the project [1;2;3;4;7;8;9]. Many villagers face a daily struggle to survive and to access food, following the grave land and livelihood loss [1;2;8]. Women are particularly affected due to their traditional gender roles and related discrimination (see report ). For instance, women have received even less information about the project and were excluded from decision making processes. Shellfish collection along the seashore – a traditional source of income for women – has been restricted due to reduced access to the coast. Sexual harassment by workers has also become a concern .
It has been estimated that if fully developed, the project would directly affect 20-36 villages with about 22,000 to 43,000 people . Villagers would lose to the project their farmlands, forests and fishing areas, as well as cultural and sacred sites, and would have to bear the environmental impacts of the project [2,7]. The loss of natural and traditionally used ecosystems would also threaten biodiversity and endemic species . Given the massive social and environmental transformation the Dawei SEZ brings for the entire region, civil society groups recognize a long-lasting impacts for people: “Dawei society – from the sea to the fields to the highlands, from Dawei town to all surrounding areas, from Dawei migrants working abroad to their friends and family in Dawei – will experience profound and long-lasting changes as a result of the SEZ. Dawei society’s land and livelihoods, shared histories and traditions, ecologies and cultures, and ability to build common futures are all under threat” [1, page 1].
Manifold mobilizations, protests and interventions against the project and its many components have been taken place. For example, in July 2011, the Karen National Union (KNU) stopped the construction of the international road connecting the SEZ to Thailand, after local communities alleged their lands were taken for the construction. In December 2011, DDA held a press conference in Yangon to express concerns about the project’s impacts on locals. In January 2012, local groups organized a campaign against the proposed coal-fired power plant that would supply the SEZ with energy. During the same month, 18 civil society groups in Thailand, supported by Thai scholars and intellectuals, held a press conference to question the Thai government over the contentious project. In April 2012, Karen villagers affected by the road construction expressed strong opposition and walked out of a meeting with the Environmental Research Institute of Chulalongkorn University (ERIC), who came to collect data for an environmental assessment report (EA), because they doubted the team’s neutrality. In August, September and November 2012, villagers from Kalonehtar protested against the water reservoir and dam, which would submerge 182 households. In January 2013, cyclist activists began a 10-day bicycle ride from Yangon to the SEZ site to raise public awareness over the environmental concerns. Many other protests were held against the Dawei SEZ. (For an overview of events see ).
Civil society organizations conducted furthermore in-depth research on the impacts and implications of the mega-project based on large research teams of up to 64 members, using both quantitative (random household surveys) and qualitative methods (focus groups, interviews) . Different groups published several reports, such as “Voices from the Ground (Dawei Development Association, 2014, see ), “Land grabbing in Dawei (Paung Ku and TNI, 2012, see ), or “Our lives not for sale” (Tavoyan Women Union, 2014, see ). The groups documented the project’s adverse impacts and reminded of the legal obligations according to international, national and regional standards to protect and respect the rights of affected communities. Related appeals were raised to the Myanmar and Thai National Human Rights Commissions, as well as to the involved private corporations. Recommendations for the involved governments, companies and Human Rights Commissions were put forward (see [2;3;7]).
In October 2014, DDA activists met with Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRCT) to submit the research findings on the Dawei SEZ . Some Thai officials reportedly deflected the blame onto the Burmese government . The Thai NHRCT issued a report in 2015, acknowledging some rights violations while continuing to investigate the case [11;12]. Despite of the concerns and mobilizations, the resumption of the project was announced in 2015 [5;6].
Civil society groups questioned also the legality of the Social and Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and argued that land acquisition and resettlement arrangements were inconsistent with national law and international standards [4;8]. While EIAs have been conducted under the initial phase for the 10 projects that are part of the SEZ, no site-wide EIA has been conducted as required by national law .
On February 20, 2018, a coalition of 36 civil society organizations signed a statement expressing their profound concerns over the resumption of the project . In the statement they expressed five demands to be addressed: First, the project cannot resume until all former problems have been completely resolved; second, the conduction of a site-wide EIA as required under Myanmar law; third, provision of accurate information about all aspects of project implementation to all people; fourth, to assure meaningful community participation that allows people to give or withhold their consent to the project overall, and lastly, the development of alternative development strategies that are not based on top-down planning of dirty industries that only benefit a few economic, political and military elites. Strategies should be based on sustainable small-scale agriculture, fisheries, customary forestry and community-based tourism . “These practices provide livelihoods and maintain the environment for the vast majority of people in Dawei. They support social solidarity, and forms of life that question the assumption that modern industry and market capitalism are the natural end points for all societies” [1, page 2], argues the CSO coalition.
Following the coup on February 1, 2021, the Thai government has suspended further funding for the connecting road until the Myanmar government stabilizes. Italian-Thai Development Plc. (ITD) has also been dropped from the project . However, this does not mean that the project itself has been suspended, as construction firms from Myanmar have been picking up development during the coup, causing rampant deforestation. The coup eliminated what little legal protection there was for the surrounding natural areas, letting new construction devastate local wildlife populations, including endangered tigers and birds. The coup and military crackdowns have brought policy-level negotiations for local and/or indigenous land rights to an abrupt halt as nearby residents focus on their basic survival .