Migrant workers fear impact of Mae Sot economic zone

The development by the Thai government of a special economic zone at Mae Sot, which is intended to improve trade and communications between Thailand and Myanmar, could have devastating consequences for local inhabitants.

These include an estimated half a million Myanmar migrant workers living just across the border in Thailand.

The proposed SEZ has a long and troubled history, and under Thailand’s former Shinawatra administration it was shelved. However, the current military government of Thailand wants to push it through.

Migrant worker Ma Khin Wai, 37, a mother of two married to a Thai man, lives in the area earmarked for the zone, informally known as Myanmar City because of the large population of migrant workers.

Her neighbours include a Thai woman married to a Myanmar man. All have expressed reservations over the impact the scheme will have on their livelihood. “I am very worried,” she said. “This small piece of land is the only land we own.”

Earlier this year, the Thai government seized more than 3.2 square kilometres of land in Mae Sot, including farms and homes, as one of 10 SEZs the government wants to establish around Thailand’s borders by the end of next year. The aim is to encourage private sector investment and to boost Thailand’s economic growth. Mae Sot is one of the priority areas selected.

Speaking in Myanmar, local villager Aiyuth Kawsa told The Myanmar Times that the Thai government had failed to keep local residents properly informed about the project. A fellow Thai then persuaded him to say no more, apparently out of fear of retribution.

Residents of nearby Wang Takiean village believe they will benefit from plans to build a bridge and a road linking Thailand with Myanmar. They are less keen on the SEZ project.

Sunathon Sribunma, 64, said the SEZ could pollute the Thaung Rin River, whose waters are used on both sides of the border.

Atipon Tupitug, head of Chun Khet village, Phop Phra district, said the government had promised that local residents would have first choice of the new jobs that would become available.

“They said nobody would have to be brought in from Bangkok,” he said, adding that 30 or 40 people had left the village to go and work in Bangkok.

But Chamakan Champratheot, head of Wong Pha village, cast doubt on this promise. He said 80 percent of his villagers had no identification cards, and so would face difficulties in gaining employment.

“We have poor education and no ID cards. How will we benefit from this?” he said. Thai residents also fear that the Myanmar migrant workers will do any work for less than the Thai minimum daily wage of 300 baht.

Under the SEZ regulations, employers would be permitted to hire foreign migrant workers. Thai authorities are pushing this as a benefit for the Myanmar residents of the zone.

Ko Aye, office manager for the MAP Foundation, which works with Myanmar migrant workers, said it was hard to assess the likely advantages and disadvantages of the SEZ project for Myanmar migrant workers.

“If they receive Bangkok pay rates in the SEZ, that’s good. They will still be close to Myanmar and don’t need to go to Bangkok. But I don’t see this happening for another three or four years,” he said.

Since the government’s announcement, local land prices have shot up by 800 percent, said villagers. Most villagers do not own land, and say government compensation is less than the market price.

Local companies worry that current trade flows and practices will be disrupted, and that big investors will take over.

“Mae Sot does business in its own way. I don’t want an SEZ, I want government support for investment. If the government wants to establish an SEZ, they should consult us,” said Pharadon Kanda, vice chair of the Tak Province Chamber of Commerce.

“I support the new bridge because it facilitates trade flow between the two countries. When I meet Myanmar business people, they don’t have problems. Our country has problems,” he said.

Mae Sot customs officials told a press conference on October 17 that Mae Sot was located on the projected East-West Economic Corridor Route that would connect Muse, Tamu, Mandalay and Yangon, bringing potential benefits to millions of people.

However, the officers have been obliged to negotiate with local villagers who objected to their presence.

Prayoung Doklamyai, a member of the Thai Human Rights Commission, criticised the haste with which the project has been pushed forward since the current Thai administration took power. He said the initial proposal for an SEZ had been terminated by the Shinawatra government in 2004 because of opposition by local civil society. Subsequent Thai governments had failed to make much progress on the issue.

While stressing that opposition to the scheme did not imply opposition to the current Thai regime, he said the project should not be handled by a temporary government, but by the next elected government of the country.

The environmental impact on the forest and the river, and the consequences for the estimated 3 million Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand were incalculable, he said.

Source: Myanmar Times

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