This week, communities affected by the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) testified at a public hearing at the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT) about the human rights and environmental impacts of the project. At the hearing, Dawei Development Association (DDA), a local civil society network, and community representatives presented a new report, entitled “Voices From the Ground: Concerns Over the Dawei Special Economic Zone and Related Projects”. Previously, in March 2013, the DDA and the affected communities submitted a complaint to the NHRCT, shortly after which one of the commissioners visited the Dawei SEZ to bear witness to the claims.

The report found that 36 villages with as many as 43,000 residents would be directly affected by the Dawei SEZ and related projects, the majority of whom rely on land-based livelihoods, including agriculture, raising livestock and fishing. Seventy-one percent of the households surveyed randomly for the report said they expect to lose all or at least some of their land due to the project. Many have already lost their property due to land confiscation. Other land has been rendered unusable by landslides or water blockages due to SEZ construction. Only 15% of households surveyed received any compensation for their lost land, crops and homes. Furthermore, the compensation process is deeply flawed: it lacks clarity about how the compensations are calculated as well as the equity and accuracy of these calculations.

The report also documents how the affected communities have not been adequately informed about the Dawei SEZ project. Without enough information or meaningful consultation, the communities have not given their consent to the project.

Most heard of the project by word of mouth, with some only learning about it when officials came to survey their land, homes and gardens ahead of the confiscation. Less than a third of affected people interviewed had attended any meeting about the project; of those who did attend, the majority did not participate because they didn’t understand the process, weren’t invited to ask questions, were afraid to say anything, or felt restricted by the language used.

The Dawei SEZ and related projects include a deep sea port, an industrial estate, a water reservoir, a road link between the Thailand and Myanmar, and a possible coal-fired power plant. Although the project was initiated in 2008, it has been slow to move forward. In 2010, a 60-year concession was granted to Italian-Thai Development Ltd. (ITD) to develop the Dawei SEZ and related projects. The project was delayed because of  environmental and social problems and lack of interest from investors. In 2012, the Myanmar government cancelled ITD’s concession and established a Special Purpose Vehicle, a company jointly owned with the Thai government in equal shares to oversee the project. After Thai Prime Minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha visited Myanmar earlier this month, he confirmed that the Dawei SEZ project would push ahead “as soon as possible.” Investors – including ITD – have made bids for the project, but very little information has been made available to the public.

“We need information, we need to know exactly who will take responsibility, what will be done to remedy the existing problems and how those responsible will protect against further negative impacts,” said Daw Su Su Swe, from the Tavoyan Women’s Union in the press release from DDA and the community representatives.

Dr. Nirun Pitakwatchara, the NHRCT Commissioner leading the investigation into the Dawei SEZ, asked these same questions to representatives of the Thai Ministry of Finance and other government agencies, but they were not forthcoming. An official from the Neighbouring Countries Economic Development Cooperation Agency said the Myanmar government should take responsibility for the human rights violations associated with the project.

The “Voices from the Ground” report was launched publicly at a panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand at which DDA and community representatives called on the Thai and Myanmar governments to resolve the human rights and environmental violations before considering a new phase to the project. They plan to release a Myanmar language version of the report in Yangon next month.