RANGOON — At her former home, 47-year-old Hla Thi helped support her family by breeding chickens and growing food crops. She and her husband, who suffered paralysis from a stroke three years ago, have faced difficult times since moving recently to a resettlement village for about people displaced by the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Rangoon Division.
“We can’t even breed chickens on this little plot of land. The chickens we brought are gone now,” she says, sitting in a small home, about 18 feet by 20 feet, which is situated on a land plot that measures about 25 feet by 50 feet.
Her new home cost about 4 million kyats (US$4,000) to build, but she and her husband received only 2.5 million kyats in compensation from the Thilawa SEZ project backers. “We can’t afford to make repairs if they are necessary,” she says, adding that she and her husband earn an income now by lending money with interest.
The Thilawa SEZ has been billed as a driver of Rangoon’s future economic growth that could provide tens of thousands of jobs. It is being funded by the Burmese government, three private Japanese companies and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a government body which confirmed late last month that it would cover 10 percent of the investment.
But for the 68 families who were relocated to Myaing Thar Yar village in November last year, to make way for the first phase of the SEZ, the project has brought little benefit.
Each household in the village received 2.5 million kyats to relocate to new homes with electricity. However, like Hla Thi, residents say they now lack enough land to work as farmers. Their homes were constructed below a landfill, and they fear flooding will be a major problem during the upcoming rainy season, especially because they lack a drainage system.
Clean water is also a concern. The residents depend on two small wells for drinking water, but one of the wells is covered with moss and filled with muddy water.
About 4,500 villagers living on 2,000 hectares designated for Phase II of the SEZ are likely to face similar problems. Among them is San Ngwe Oo, a 25-year-old mother from the Bay Bauk fishing community. She and more than 160 households will need to relocate when two jetties are constructed by JICA and Wai Mar, a private Burmese company. Authorities have not yet agreed on a compensation amount.
“Though we live a poor life, we can support our children so they can finish school and join the fishing business,” San Ngwe Oo says, adding that her children will likely lose their ability to make a living when the project starts.
Over the past six months, residents affected by the Thilawa SEZ have sent several letters to JICA requesting a meeting, but none of the letters have received a response.
Mekong Watch, a Japanese NGO, has criticized JICA’s decision to move forward with the project, saying there has been “insufficient improvement in resettlement and compensation measures.”
“At present, some villagers living in the relocation site for 68 households moved for Phase 1 of the project are facing great difficulties,” the NGO said in a statement.
“They have not been provided with any farmland, they have lost their jobs, and alternative means of livelihood have not been secured. Some have already had to use all the compensation they received and are now in debt. There are already cases of families selling their new homes and leaving the relocation site.
“It is impossible to agree that relocation has been carried out ‘in line with international standards,’ as JICA and the local government promised.”
Michihiro Ishibashi, a Japanese lawmaker who leads Japan’s special committee on official development assistance, visited the Thilawa SEZ relocation site on Thursday. He said he would personally ask the Burma country director of JICA to explain why the residents have not yet received a response to their letters.
“I will try to demand that JICA have an immediate meeting with the people here, so issues such as water supply, water drainage and schooling for kids can be settled,” he told The Irrawaddy.