One very sunny day, I took a small boat to Maday Island to do research on the Kyauk Phyu SEZ with my classmate. This was an unforgettable experience. The waves were much bigger than the boat and it was a scary and bumpy ride. It was a windy day but the sunshine made me sweat and my body was covered with salt from the seawater that continuously crashed over me. Finally, after a two-hour journey, I reached Maday Island safely around 3 P.M. Soon after, the sun hid behind the mountain and eventually everything went dark. Feeling exhausted from the boat ride, I fell asleep early.
I woke up suddenly to the sound of a bell ringing in the monastery. Glancing at the clock on my phone, I realized it was only 5 o’clock in the morning but everyone in the village was already awake. Men were going to farm and garden, others were going fishing. Some kids were crying loudly. The women were preparing food by candlelight. This is what happens every day in the village. I thought to myself that their lives were simple and seemed to be in harmony with their environment. At the same time, I also wondered if they were aware of the enormous development project that is planned for the area, and its potentially adverse effects on their way of life and environment. I watched the sun come out slowly from the east. This would be my first day touring around Maday Island.
I travelled to Maday Island in order to meet with the local people to talk about the Kyauk Phyu SEZ. It is a mega-development project that will cost 2.4 billion USD and will start in the next two to five years. The project will require many acres of land, including farmland and virgin land. It will clear large areas of mangrove forest and will also flatten nearby hills. As I planned for my research trip, I thought to myself: How are these people going to survive if they lose their resources such as their land and forest? How are they going to send their children to school if they have no income? Where are they going to fish? These are the questions I wanted to know.
I tried to walk the whole island on foot, which meant crossing mountains, hills, forest and paddy fields. Sometimes I would fall down into the paddy field and my body would be wet the whole day. At around 10 A.M, I reached a small house built on top of a hill and surrounded by huge mango trees. I interviewed the owner of the house; a 62-year-old man who still looks young and strong. He kept smiling at me, which made me more comfortable to start my interview. He told me,
“This land is my life, this river is my stomach. I have been living here and working here for a long time and I will pass my land to my children so they can do the same as me. This land is not only important for us but it’s also very important for my animals.”
His powerful words helped me understand the importance of this land. He has anticipated the problems what will occur if the project starts, if the developer clears the mangrove forest, and if his lands are grabbed. He knows how this will affect his livelihood. As he gives me a tour of his garden, he tells me that he grows different types of trees and vegetables. He owns five acres of lands, seven cows and one male water buffalo. Before leaving, I had lunch at his house. I can still remember the taste of the wild food that his wife made.
I continued to talk with the local people about what might happen if the project starts and how it could damage the environment and local livelihoods. There are some people who have even sold their land already because they worry that when the SEZ comes they might not receive anything, as has been the case with some of the people affected by the Shwe Gas Pipeline. Almost all of the people on Maday Island rely on the surrounding environment for their daily lives. They get fish from the rivers; rice from their farmlands; food and firewood from the forest; and vegetables from the mountain. People are poor but they never go hungry because they have everything they need to provide for their families in nature.
After returning to Kyauk Phyu, I had the chance to interview two local NGO leaders who are working on the Shwe Gas Pipeline, the Kyauk Phyu Special Economic Zone, and the Kyauk Phyu Coal Power Plant. One of the leaders told me that,
“If the SEZ starts, it will not be easy for local people to adapt their lives in a short time – even if the developers pay compensation for their land. They are not technicians; they are fishermen and farmers who depend on nature. They are weak at managing money because they have no experience dealing with this amount of money. The project developer must take responsibility for [these challenges] in order for the project to truly offer the local people a chance to have a better life and a better future.”
As I learned more about the Kyauk Phyu SEZ project, I realized just how much of an impact it will have on local people’ lives, their environment, traditions, and culture. Myanmar people have learned many lessons from the terrible impacts associated with other projects such as the Thilawa SEZ, Dawei SEZ, Letpadaung mining case, and the Shwe Gas Pipeline. The country lacks strong regulations and laws on business practices, there is an Environmental Conservation Law but no EIA procedures yet, and rule of law is still very weak. In the face of these challenges, it is necessary for local people to be united in order to protect their lives and the environment. The country’s lawmakers are responsible to ensure that there are laws that protect citizens’ rights from harmful business activities. The companies must also follow good international business practices, and be ethical in implementing their projects. The government and companies must put people’s lives and the environment first, rather than profit.