Clashing with the law, SEZ body to resurrect Dawei megaproject

Myanmar’s SEZ working body announced that the long-suspended Dawei SEZ project will be resurrected this October, in a move which is set to clash with the Environmental Conservation Law because there is no known site-wide environment assessment conducted or approved.

U Than Myint, chair of the SEZ Central Working Body, said during a meeting with the Private Sector Development Committee on July 6 that the SEZ project will resume and that both the initial phase and the latter phase will be implemented “simultaneously”.

“Road construction for Dawei SEZ, supported by the loan from Thailand, has been approved by the Hluttaw. After the rainy season, the construction [for both phases] will simultaneously start,” U Than Myint, who is also the commerce minister, said. He added that the initial construction will be carried out by Thai firm Italian-Thai Development (ITD). ITD’s president, Premchai Karnasuta, was arrested and charged by Thai authorities this year after being caught with guns and animal carcasses in a wildlife sanctury in Thailand.

The scandal had further alarmed Tanintharyi communities. It is unclear why the government still entrusts the project – a project ten times larger than Thilawa SEZ” – to a Thai firm which is mired in a major scandal in neighbouring Thailand.

The port construction and establishment of an industrial zone will be facilitated by both the public sector and private businesses from Myanmar, Thailand and Japan, the working body announced. Construction of the 156km two-lane highway linking Htee-Khee village at the border to the SEZ site is scheduled to begin as well. Myanmar will take a 4.5 billion bahts loan from Bangkok to finance the road and this has been approved by Pyidaungsu Hluttaw on March 26.

Dawei SEZ is 27 square kilometres in landmass for its initial phase and 197sq km for the entire project, to be led by Japan and Myanmar. In contrast, Thilawa SEZ covers 25sq km of land in southern Yangon. However, the announcement puts the SEZ body directly at odds with what the law demands.

In violation of the law

Article 83 of the 2015 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Procedure under the Environmental Conservation Law states that an SEZ Permit or any permit regarding implementation of the project can only be granted to a developer after the issuance of an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) by the environment ministry. The Dawei SEZ proposal, encompassing the 156km highway, sea port, industrial zone and other economic activities, is categorised as a project which requires a site-wide EIA. Therefore, constructing the project is illegal without the assessment.

The authorities have not provided details on how implementation of Dawei SEZ is in line with the EIA Procedure. U Than Myint cannot be reached for comment by press time.

Meanwhile, the announcement has also drawn criticisms. U Bo Bo from EarthRights International urged the government to resolve “already-existing problems first by providing compensation for past damages and establishing an effective operational grievance mechanism” before any project activities.

“We still have serious concerns over Dawei SEZ given the facts that EIA consultation process for the roadlink is deeply flawed, previous problems – from 2010 to 2013 – were never addressed and no human rights due diligence process has been conducted, [despite the fact that] the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand expressed their concerns on adverse human rights impacts in the project,” U Bo Bo complained.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in Yangon has written multiple letters to the relevant authorities seeking clarification on the status of EIAs for the SEZ and related projects, but to date has not received any response.

“Myanmar law is clear that land acquisition and construction cannot lawfully commence without a site-wide environmental impact assessment. The silence on information sharing is deafening, and unlawful. People have a right to information and they also have a right to participate in decisions affecting their lives – this is recognised in national and international law,” Sean Bain, the ICJ’s legal adviser, commented.

Other NGOs and experts have similarly criticised the proposal and lack of assessments. For example, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in May called for a site-wide environmental assessment to be done, while Charlie Thame from Thammasat University questioned whether local communities are “fully aware of the risks” and have “genuinely consented to them”. “Would they not prefer an alternative model for developing the region?”

In February, a total of 36 CSOs released a joint statement demanding the authorities pursue alternative strategies such as peasant farming, fishing, livestock rearing, and customary forest use “immediately and with serious intent”. Dawei society deserves “an open and honest reckoning” over who will benefit if the project resumes, the CSOs argued.

It remains to be seen whether the SEZ body or relevant officials has responded to any of these concerns.

The SEZ project in Dawei, Tanintharyi Region, was first proposed in 2008 but failed to move forward due to investment and financing issues. People in Tanintharyi Region have long decried the forced evictions, lack of transparency and environmental disruption associated with the scheme.

Source: Myanmar Times

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