As Myanmar pushes to attract more foreign direct investment through its three special economic zones, civil society organisations have reiterated their recommendation to review and monitor the progress of the SEZs.
Charlie Thame, a researcher at Thammasat University’s faculty of political science, wrote a year long report entitled “SEZs and value extraction from the Mekong”.
He said at the report launch on Friday that the SEZs had been developed with limited transparency and locals had been displaced without proper consultation and adequate redress.
“International standards regarding land, labour rights and environmental protection officially apply to SEZs but they have not been effectively implemented,” he said.
“Workers face obstacles protecting rights they are entitled to. Environmental impact assessments have not always met international standards and environmental regulations have been enforced selectively in some zones.”
Thame highlighted four key recommendations from a yearlong report. He urged the government to revise the SEZ legislative and governance structures; to prioritise responsible investments in sustainable industries and encourage investments in public infrastructure, including education and healthcare; and to improve transparency and accountability in the development of SEZs.
He also suggested that civil society engage with, and amplify, the voices of local communities and workers to ensure they were included in decisionmaking of the projects as well as hold the government and companies accountable for activities related to the SEZs.
“It is hard to see many redeeming features of the SEZs and if I were from Myanmar, I would strongly suppose their development,” he said.
He said the studies were based on desk reviews of existing literature and interviews with government officials, investors, garment manufacturer association representatives, bank representatives, a national human rights commissioner, nongovernment organisations and representatives of labour unions and organisations.
The report pointed out weaknesses in SEZ governance structures and the lack of transparency and accountability in the development and administration of the zones, heightened the risk of capture of the State by political and economic elites.
Shalmali Guttal, executive director of Focus on the Global South, said economic growth could not be promoted without a proper assessment of costs and benefits.
“Globally, there is plenty of evidence to show the impacts of SEZs on the rights of workers and local communities. It is alarming that the interest of investors continues to be protected at the cost of people and the environment,” she said.
According to Guttal, the Greater Mekong subregion usually attracted investor interest thanks to its abundant resources, plentiful land, and young and energetic labour.
She said the government should protect the rights of its citizens to ensure it benefited from being in the Asean Economic Community. She called for transparency with the agreement and implementation of megaprojects.
“The quality of the environment is really vital to that of life,” she said. “Agreements with companies should not be a secret. Negative impacts on the quality of water and forests, etc. should not be neglected.”
Soe Shwe, coordinator of Myanmar SEZs Watch, said the current SEZ law did not provide enough protection for local communities and was mainly concerned with protecting the interest of investors.
“Our laws and regulations need to be reviewed and amended as soon as possible. They should include protection measures for residents living in the project areas,” he said.
He added the government needed to minimise the negative impacts caused by the SEZs by providing locals with opportunities to participate in the consultations and decisionmaking before implementing any projects.
“It is really hard to raise our voices when it comes to implementation of the SEZs,” he said. “Once the decision is set by the authorities, they always try to neglect locals’ view. Such practice has been deep rooted and we have not seen any progress under this democratic government yet.”