YANGON — Myanmar (also known as Burma) is basking in the glory of Barack Obama’s visit this week — the first by a sitting American president to a nation that had until recently had been considered a repressive pariah state.
Burma, a resource-rich nation in Southeast Asia, has captured the world’s attention in recent months as its military-backed government rolls out unprecedented political and economic reforms.
But environmental and human rights activists are wary: They wonder how serious the government really is about upending a status quo that for decades has allowed corrupt leaders to plunder natural resources like jade, timber, and oil while delivering few, if any, benefits to ordinary citizens.
Burmese environmentalists point to a proposed seaport-cum-industrial zone on the country’s west coast that the government views as an economic imperative, saying the project as proposed will seriously threaten the environment and local communities.
“We know our country is thirsty for development,” Bo Bo Aung, coordinator of the Burmese advocacy group Dawei Development Association, told me this summer in Yangon. “But this (project) may be very problematic.”
Reuters has said the $50 billion Dawei economic zone on Burma’s west coast will include a deep sea port, power plants, petrochemical factories, and a 132 kilometer (82 mile) road to the Thai border. Myanmar expects construction to begin by April, a Thai official told Reuters.
But activists in Burma say the project will have heavy impacts on the roughly 23,000 people who live nearby. They also worry that pollution from factories would contaminate local watersheds and that construction of the road designed to link the port with Thailand would lead to deforestation.
The project’s main investor, Dawei Development Company Limited, is a subsidiary of Thailand’s largest construction firm, Italian-Thai Development. The project site lies less than 400 miles from Yangon and just 350 miles from Bangkok, the Thai capital.
The company says on its website that the project will boost trade by offering a shortcut into Thailand. “Dawei Port connects the world a step forward to a brighter future,” the website says. But activist Bo Bo Aung is skeptical, saying he has seen how petrochemical factories and industrial complexes have affected landscapes and communities in neighboring Thailand.
“If they bring … petrochemicals to Dawei, who will suffer?” he told Earth Island Journal. “The people of Dawei.”
Ninety percent of the people living near the project site are farmers who earn less than 5,000 Myanmar kyat (about six dollars) per day, and some have been evicted by the project’s developers without compensation, a group of local NGOs said in a March report. But the 37-page report also said some residents believe the project will provide them with electricity, transportation and education.
Three Bangkok-based civil society groups offered a sharper critique of the project in August, saying pollution from its planned coal-fired power plant causes acid rain to fall on Thailand’s Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In an eight-page brief, the groups called for a comprehensive environmental impact assessment, saying that fishing is important to livelihoods and food security for farmers living near the proposed project.
Unless the developers address potential effects on livelihoods and the environment, “the Dawei project will be criticized continuously by civil society not only at the regional level but also at the international level” because the developers are seeking international investors, the report said.
A phone call to the developer’s Bangkok office on Monday rang unanswered, and a follow-up email was not returned.
In recent months, the region’s business press has speculated that the project is stalled as the developer tries to solicit crucial start-up capital. But So Lin Aung, a Yangon-based researcher, wrote in September that the project still has a good chance of going ahead despite “significant question marks” because very powerful politicians are pushing it forward.
“One thing missing … in articles claiming the imminent suspension of the Dawei project, is a deeper sense of the structural forces in place,” So Lin Aung wrote on New Mandala, an Asia-focused blog hosted by the Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific. “Were the project actually to be cancelled, it would be against the grain of some of the most important national and regional trends of the neoliberal era in Southeast Asia.”
The Bangkok Post reported Tuesday that Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra discussed the project with Myanmar President Thein Sein at a regional summit in Cambodia, and the leaders agreed to complete the project’s first phase by 2015. A senior Thai official also said Yingluck will visit the site next month with businessmen and investors, the newspaper reported.