SAW KEB DOH of the ethnic-Karen Kalonehtar village in Myanmar’s Dawei district murmured constantly about fears that have been gripping the villagers’ hearts.
In 2012, Saw Keb Doh’s heart pounded heavily after learning about the ceasefire agreement the Karen National Union made with the Myanmar government. Like everyone in the village, the young Karen in his 30s felt a new hope for a better life as they would no longer fear the fighting and could have a chance to renew their peaceful lives in this hilly community.
But not long after that, the sound of bulldozers in the name of development of the nearby Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) rocked the villagers’ hearts again. They learned later that their village was designated as the site of the project’s reservoir that would supply industries down the mountain, and ever since, the villagers’ hearts have pounded again – with different beats of fears and uncertainty.
“They never told, never told us what they were doing,” Saw Keb Doh grumbled.
Despite on-and-off operations, Thai investments in this district, whether in the Dawei SEZ or tin mining, remain in force, cutting a swathe through communities sitting in the way of their progress – beyond the Tenasserim mountain range to the bright-blue waters of the Andaman.
Dawei SEZ, an extremely ambitious project with plans for a deep seaport, a large industrial estate, and overland transport links to Bangkok 350 kilometres to the east, began to be publicly accused of having impacts on the locals and their environment.
Dawei residents, including Kalonehtar villagers, accuse it of land grabs, insufficient or unpaid compensation for people’s relocation, the loss of heritage associated with land and communities, and, perhaps most important, lack of consultation with the residents.
Signed in 2008 between Italian-Thai Development and the Myanmar Port Authority, the Dawei project became the first Thai mega-investment in that part of Myanmar. Since then, the ambitious project has faced a rugged road.
Work began two years later in 2010 before seeing the first developer withdraw from the project. The Thai government through the Finance Ministry’s Neighbouring Countries Economic Development Cooperation Agency (NEDA) and the Myanmar government then stepped in, joining forces to set up a special project vehicle called Dawei SEZ Development to continue work on the project.
It was not until 2015 that Japan decided to jump on to the boat, but still, there is not much to see in the 200-square-kilometre Dawei SEZ, except locals still crying foul over the impacts it has had.
Further away, a Thai tin-mining project has underlined the fact that Thai investments can cross the borders to have impacts in neighbouring countries.
Zaw Moe Aung of Myaung Pyo village near the mine has seen the local river ruined, fish gone, the water poisoned, and his neighbours falling ill as a result.
“We are not against the mine, but we just wish they would follow the right course and care for us a bit,” Zaw Moe Aung said.
The companies apparently paid little attention to the residents’ complaints until the Thai National Human Rights Commission stepped in. Finally, they are taking action.
NHRC member Tuenjai Deetes told the villagers after a recent visit to the Dawei SEZ and the mine by the commission that the she and her colleagues would report their problems to the Thai government and push for fair treatment.
Pakpoom Witantirawat, member of an NHRC subcommittee, said: “Imagine that Dawei rejected this heavy-industry development path, but [instead] chose to be a city based on education and tourism. We would see a very different life for the people here within 10 years.
“Don’t get trapped – or make other people get trapped – in a notion that industry is the only choice in life. It’s absolutely not.”