Myanmar’s Thilawa SEZ: At What Human Cost?

Developers vaunt Myanmar’s Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ) as ‘the most advanced of Myanmar’s three SEZs’, boasting – as it does – its own power, water and internet services, which is to say nothing of the purpose-built port terminal and conspicuous tax breaks offered to investors.

Slated to occupy some 2,400 ha (5,930 acre) when complete, the 400 ha initial phase of the project became fully operational in September last year, with construction of hard and soft infrastructure due to be completed by the end of 2016.

Located 23 km (14 mi) south of Yangon, the first phase of the project, scheduled to cost US$3.28 billion, the Thilawa SEZ is a joint venture between the Japan External Trade Organization (Jetro) and the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI).

Backing the Thilawa SEZ Company consortium established by the governments of the two countries are some of Japan’s largest corporations, most notably Mitsubishi, Marubeni, and Sumitomo corporations who between them claim a 39 per cent stake in the total project, while Toyota and Suzuki are reported to have bid for manufacturing facilities in the SEZ.

The Human Cost of the Thilawa SEZ

However, while developers and the government might boast that the Thilawa SEZ is Myanmar’s biggest commercial city, its establishment hasn’t all been smooth sailing.  Sixty eight families evicted from land housing  the first phase of the Thilawa SEZ, are struggling to survive in a relocation site that fails to meet the standards of a refugee camp, much less a permanent, planned community.

Robbed by corporate stakeholders and the Myanmar government not only of their ancestral lands, but also their crops and livestock, the people of Thanlyin and Kyauk Tan Townships must do daily battle with fouled water, crippled finances, floods of raw sewage, and trying to make themselves heard in the corridors of power.

But now, with the support of EarthRights International, a committee selected by the community is working with Thilawa SEZ developers and the government to design an Operational Grievance Mechanism (OGM) to address the harms done by the SEZ.

For as Sein Win, whose own home is due to be relocated soon, says: “If Japan and our country will benefit from this place where our ancestors lived, that we had to sacrifice by relocating, and there is no benefit to the villagers, then the economic zone is meaningless.


Video uploaded to YouTube by EarthRights International

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