Special Economic Zones
As Myanmar is opening up to democracy, it is also opening its borders to foreign investment. The country is building a series of new special economic zones (SEZ), areas that are designed attract businesses by weakening regulations, offering tax breaks, and waving minimum wage requirements. Many of the communities in these SEZs are speaking out against what they see as land grabs, abuse and exploitation on the part of investors and project managers.
Myanmar’s first SEZ, Thilawa, has forced farmers off of their land, refusing them compensation and cutting them off from the water supply. The project has awarded numerous contracts to Japanese companies in exchange for Japan’s willingness to forgive most of a $6.6 billion debt owed by Myanmar. Villagers from the first area of the SEZ were relocated to a site that did not meet the standards of even a refugee camp. They were forced to give up their livelihoods as farmers, denied replacement land and forced into severe debt. Villagers in the second area of this SEZ, slated to begin operation soon, have tried to make their voices heard but are met with closed doors, empty promises and ultimately no real action.
Dawei SEZ, located in southern Myanmar, directly affects 43,000 residents, most of whom have not received enough information about the project, nor have they been consulted. Many of the communities’ concerns were documented in a 2014 report, “Voices from the Ground.” In 2017, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand visited Dawei to observe the impacts of Thai investments in the area.
Kyaukphyu is a SEZ still in the earlier stages of development. ERI has worked with communities in Kyaukphyu on mapping natural resources and on a community-drive report on their own socioeconomic issues.
ERI partners with the communities of these SEZs to strengthen their voices. We provide trainings on relevant laws and processes involved in SEZs, such as environmental impact assessments, resettlement work plans, baseline studies, land-use mapping and the Myanmar SEZ law. We aim to provide the resources that will enable these communities to demand that companies consult with and listen to them. ERI also engages with investors and governments to push them to fulfill their responsibilities, conduct actual due diligence, and act in a way that reflects a commitment to human rights and the environment. ERI released a video to share the concerns of communities in Thilawa about unjust relocations and the impact that the SEZ has on their livelihoods. Following NHRC’s visit to Dawei SEZ, ERI also produced a video documenting the visit and related issues.