Opinion: Abandoned houses a bad sign in Dawei

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Bangkok Post, Dawei, Myanmar

During a recent trip to the Bawah relocation area in Myanmar, where nearly 500 houses have been built to accommodate the more than 1,000 people affected by the development of the Dawei Special Economic Zone (DSEZ), it caught me by surprise that most of the houses are unoccupied. 

A local farmer looks after her vegetables she grows in vacant land between rows of empty houses in a relocation site to the north of Dawei town in Tanintharyi Region, Myanmar / Credit: Paritta Wangkiat

The project is located in the north of Dawei town, in Myanmar's southern Tanintharyi region. It is supposed to be a liveable relocation area for those whose homes and plantations were cleared to pave the way for the DSEZ almost a decade ago. But the area now looks more like a ghost town. 

The DSEZ occasionally hits the headlines as a prospective megaproject that will rejuvenate Myanmar's economy. In 2008, the project was initiated by Myanmar’s military government and Thai construction giant Italian-Thai Development Co (ITD) in an effort to transform Dawei's rural coastal area into one of the largest heavy and chemical industrial zones in Southeast Asia. 

Once completed, the DSEZ will span 194 square kilometres and include a deep-sea port, a petrochemical complex, coal-fired power plants, steel mills and hundreds of manufacturing facilities. It is expected to bring in large amounts of foreign direct investment and create jobs for local people. However, none of these things are happening on the ground due to a lack of financial resources.

The only visible sign of development is a bumpy road linking the DSEZ area to Thailand's Kanchanaburi province -- part of which hosts the western Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, where ITD executive Premchai Karnasuta and three others were arrested last year in possession of firearms and the carcasses of protected animals, including a black leopard. (In March, a court sentenced Karnasuta to 16 months in jail for illegal possession of a dead pheasant and weapons, but he was acquitted of any wrongdoing connected with the black leopard. He is currently out on bail and plans to appeal the charges).

The vast relocation area I visited is part of the DSEZ's ambitious industrialization mission. It hosts 480 two-story houses with gardens and white-painted walls made of concrete. Water supply pipes and electric poles are in place.

They are homes that the average, urban middle-class earner like myself might one day hope to own. But there is only one family living in the new project. The rest of the people displaced the special economic zone’s decided not to live there but went back to live village lives elsewhere and work in plantations close to forests.

Why have these modern houses been abandoned by the relocated families despite the fact they are living in seemingly more rustic conditions?

Because these so-called urban dream houses are not in keeping with the local community’s lifestyles.

The need for inclusion

From its origins, the DSEZ’s development vision did not include local people. Instead, it focuses on boosting Myanmar’s economic growth and export sector. It’s a similar strategy to one implemented across Asia's new industrial countries -- including South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore -- between the 1960s and 1990s. Thailand adopted a similar approach in the 1980s.

As a result, these countries went through rapid industrialization marked by a "miracle" growth rate. But their economic success was followed by social inequality and environmental problems during their transition from poor to richer countries.

Creating a DSEZ with special laws and privileges for foreign investors will allow them access to Myanmar's untapped resources. But that also leads to a clash between capitalism and local livelihoods.

Even though Myanmar has opened itself up to the world, traces of the "Buddhist economy," as described by German-born British economist EF Schumacher, are intact in almost everywhere in Dawei.

People there produce goods to answer basic needs. Local consumption is based on sufficiency. Some communities have not adopted the idea of owning private properties.

Spiritual leaders, especially monks, are involved in the participatory economy, which includes community-based tourism and producing value-added agricultural products. Monks are also at the forefront of holding protests against irresponsible developers.

In many Dawei communities, youth groups have formed to reinforce the value of community solidarity while embracing technology and modernization.

These aspects of the local lifestyle may be seen as "backward" in the eyes of developers or bankers who prefer to see growth. But they’re perceived by some locals as a way to maintain invaluable assets, such as culture and natural resources.

Recently, the Neighbouring Countries Economic Development Cooperation Agency -- a Thai governmental organization providing financial and technical assistance to its neighboring countries -- approved a 4.5-billion-baht loan for the Myanmar government to improve the road from Dawei to Kanchanaburi.

Since little information about the DSEZ reaches local communities, it's likely the project will be carried on gradually and will be driven by top-down decisions.

But there are lessons to be learned from the relocation project.

Those abandoned houses in Dawei symbolize how development fails without local participation. And what happened there should remind us that we need a new model of development that is not driven by over-consumption nor damaging to natural resources.

If development of the DSEZ takes place through a bottom-up process, there would be more integrated economic development opportunities in Dawei where local people could benefit from and contribute to economic growth.

Perhaps it could even replace the growth-first strategy that usually puts long-term constraints on society and the environment.

Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist with the Bangkok Post. She wrote this story following a visit to the see the industrial park and deep-sea port in Dawei, Myanmar, supported by EJN media grantees the Thai Society of Environmental Journalists and the Thai Journalists Association.