RANGOON — Villagers facing relocation from the planned Thilawa Special Economic Zone said government officials have pressured them into accepting an unfair compensation offer for the loss of farmland to the Japan-backed investment project near Rangoon. A senior government official denied the allegations.
Work on the first 400-hectare phase of the 2,400-hectare Thilawa SEZ in Rangoon Division’s Thanlyin Township is due to start at the end of the month.
At a consultation meeting in late September, most the 84 affected families signed agreements accepting the government’s compensation offer of six years’ worth of harvests and a roughly 60 square meter plot of land in a barren area prone to flooding.
At a press conference on Thursday, however, Mya Hlaing, a representative of the villagers, came forward to complaint that villagers signed the agreement under duress, as the officials supposedly warned villagers of the consequences if they refused to sign.
A joint press release issued on Thursday by the villagers, NGO Thilawa Social Development Group and Mekong Watch, a group that monitors Japanese investment projects in the region, alleged that some officials told the farmers: “If you don’t sign today, you will never receive the compensation at all” and “If you don’t sign, your house will be bulldozed.”
Thilawa SEZ is being planned the Burmese and Japanese governments, together with a consortium of Japanese firms and the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
The sprawling complex, located about 25 km south of Rangoon, will include a deep sea port, Japanese factories, and large housing projects. The Burmese side owns 51 percent of the project and is responsible for developing a 2,400-hectare core zone.
At the heart of the disagreement between the government and the farmers are events in the mid-1990s, when the then military government seized swathes of land with little or no compensation in order to set an industrial zone.
The project failed to take off and farmers resumed cultivating their lands. When plans for the zone were revamped with Japanese support last year, communities were told to leave. But land prices have reportedly soared to as much as US$10,000 per hectare, and many farmers are now demanding higher compensation.
Villagers’ representative Mya Hlaing said the families were disappointed by government actions as officials had previously promised that the Japanese-Burmese investment project would follow World Bank guidelines for community consultation and resettlement, and environmental and social impact assessments.
“They said they’d pay the compensation according to the international standards,” Mya Hlaing said. “But I doubt it.”
Set Aung, chairman of the Thilawa SEZ Management Committee, denied the allegations made by the farmers and said that proper consultation, compensation and resettlement procedures were followed.
“We never forced any people to sign,” he said, adding that a number of compensation packages were offer to affected villagers, while villagers were also offered the chance to individually negotiate for better government compensation.
Japanese firms are planning to build a number of manufacturing plants in the SEZ in order to produce Japanese goods for the global market. The Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a Japanese development agency, is developing infrastructure for the project.
Thilawa village representatives and NGOs supporting them said they contacted JICA as they felt that the government’s compensation offer violated the agency’s guidelines.
JICA Burma country director Masahiko Tanaka briefly attended a press conference at the Myanmar Journalists’ Network in Rangoon on Thursday, where the villagers presented their complaints. Tanaka offered Thilawa Social Development Group a letter acknowledging their request for a meeting and then left before journalists could ask him questions.
In a brief phone call on Friday, Tanaka said JICA was confirming the different accounts of events given by the government and the villagers. “Next week I will meet the farmers and I will hear the farmers’ opinion,” he said, before declining further comment.