This week,  EarthRights International, in partnership with the Thilawa Social Development Group (TSDG), Kyaukphyu Rural Development Association (KRDA) and Dawei Development Association (DDA), hosted the seminar Myanmar’s SEZs: Opportunities or threats to local communities.

The seminar, the first of its kind in Myanmar, brought together residents of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), as well as representatives from civil society, academia and the private sector. At the seminar, attendees learned about the background of SEZs in Myanmar and the challenges caused by mega-development projects in Thailand and Japan.

As the venue filled up, murmurs turned to vibrant conversation; introductions became rich stories of on the ground trials and tribulations. With the seminar set to begin, the noise curtailed, the sound of excited chatter soon turned to silence as Japanese and Thai academics detailed examples of unregulated development. They discussed industrial mercury poisoning in Japan – also known as Minamata disease, named after a town in Japan at which industrial waste water from a chemical plant caused widespread disease and death for decades – alongside the wider environmental and social effects of development in Thailand.

The question and answer portion of the event opened a space for feelings and emotions of the SEZ residents to rise to the forefront. “We don’t want another Minamata,” called out one villager from Dawei, the location of a planned SEZ in southeastern Myanmar. His words echoed around the room as a reminder of the affected people’s sentiment.

By this time, the stage was set for the SEZ residents to take the spotlight as their representatives shared their plight. From Thilawa, the SEZ being developed south of Yangon, U Mya Hlaing touched on many challenges, including the pollution of water sources and his community’s quest to address their grievances through engagement and dialogue with corporations, government, and other stakeholders.

From Dawei, where the SEZ project is expected to resume after being delayed, U Aung Phyo Win delivered a presentation outlining the local community’s reactions and the role of local civil society. Optimistic eyes looked on, as the audience heard of the coordinated response of the Dawei community.

From Kyaukphyu, as the community waits in anticipation of the dramatic impact industrialization will have on their quiet island, U Soe Shwe shared his community’s hopes and fears as the project draws nearer. This included an overview of the Shwe gas pipeline and the ways in which past memories of development are shaping villagers’ future aspirations.

As the seminar drew to an end, the audience turned to vibrant conversation. The language of anticipation turned to ideas for next steps for the people of Thilawa, Kyaukphyu and Dawei. After the closing remarks, it was telling that as the audience and presenters mingled, the SEZ residents continued to take questions at the center of the room. Their voices were a reminder of who is truly facing both the opportunities and the threats of Myanmar’s SEZs.