THILAWA, Myanmar – Tin Hsan and her husband lived modestly in the outskirts of Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon, growing rice and betel leaves on their 22 acres and peddling vegetables, but they got by, until they were forced to move to make way for Thilawa, a showcase industrial zone being built with Japanese aid.
The expansive factory park is part of plans to develop the Yangon region and its crumbling, pre-World War II infrastructure as Myanmar rushes to shift from subsistence farming to export manufacturing following sweeping political and economic reforms that ended outright rule by the military.
Critics, however, say the landmark project is pushing families deeper into poverty, and accuse local officials of strong-arm tactics to force resettlements, highlighting the dilemmas faced by Myanmar’s fledgling democracy as foreign businesses and development groups pour into the country.
Japan International Cooperation Agency and several big Japanese companies have a combined 49 percent stake in the 5,900-acre special economic zone, which is Japan’s biggest investment in Myanmar so far.
Many of the people forced to move from farms to tiny plots of land outside the area designated for the industrial zone may eventually get jobs in the factories expected to set up in Thilawa. But in the meantime conditions are bleak.
My husband is a farmer and he only knows how to work in the field. Since he has no work to do, he became depressed and is now drinking day and night, said Tin Hsan, standing outside their rickety, one-room hut that fills a barren roadside lot. Since we moved here and live in this small place with no space to grow anything, we are living hand to mouth and we are all miserable.
Tin Hsan and her husband are one of 81 households, or about 300 people, moved between 4.5 kilometers and 8 kilometers so far. Local residents and their advocates say that in the rush to meet deadlines, residents were forced to sign agreements for new housing and compensation that fell far short of their needs and also violated JICA’s requirement that resettlement not result in lower living standards.
More than 4,500 will be resettled for the second phase of construction.
Plans call for the zone to eventually employ nearly 300,000 people, mostly in manufacturing.
There’s so much speculative capital looking for somewhere to go. Thilawa is looking like the best bet for an industrial park so that land prices are going up, said Rachel Calvert of consultancy IHS. The amount of interest in Thilawa is huge.
Thilawa is promising ample, stable electricity and good quality water piped in from a reservoir up country. Since other industrial zones in and around Yangon are full and lack stable electricity, companies are lining up to get in, Calvert said.
Yet satisfying the priorities of foreign investors and local businesses comes at a high cost for those uprooted. They are unhappy over the disruptions to their lives, loss of livelihoods, the amount of compensation provided, and most acutely over the silty orange water available to their new homes.
Tin Hsan and her husband received about $29,000 in compensation, a sum that is a small fortune in Myanmar but which was quickly dissipated and also shortchanged them by paying out for only 13 of their 22 acres. Without farmland to provide food and an income, the extended family of four sons and a dozen grandchildren was forced apart. Tin Hsan said they spent about $5,000 to build their new house and split the remaining money between their children.
Maybe the residents’ homes were old, but they were spacious. Now they have new homes, but they’re cramped and surrounded by water when it rains. The houses are full of cracks, Michihiro Ishibashi, a Japanese lawmaker who recently visited to investigate, told a parliamentary committee last month.
Officials at JICA, the Japanese aid organization with a 10 percent stake in Thilawa, acknowledge problems with the resettlement effort but insist the project conforms to its own and to other international aid standards.