Investor confidence in the long-delayed Dawei special economic zone (DSEZ) is growing after Japan signed on as a third equal partner with Myanmar and Thailand this December. Japan’s backing may finally kick start construction of the billion dollar project that has been crippled by funding shortfalls since 2013. If it’s ever finished, the deep-seaport is expected to rival the one in Singapore, opening a new gateway to the Malacca Strait from the western Myanmar seaboard. The 196 square km special economic zone – scaled down from initial estimates of 204.5 square km – would become one the biggest industrial parks in Southeast Asia.
Thailand and Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in 2008 to develop the DSEZ; one the three special economic zones in the country expected to stimulate growth by drawing in foreign investment. About eight years later work on the DSEZ has been minimal. On the site of the deep-seaport a single crane sits on lonely platform rising from the sea some 100 meters from shore. Most of the land in the first phase that will see automotive parts, electronics, canneries and pharmaceuticals factories built has been plowed but construction efforts have been negligible. New delays have come up after Japan requested modifications made to the original drafts. The vital road link connecting Myanmar to Thailand’s Kanchanaburi scheduled to begin this March has been suspended. Japan determined 15-degree inclines along 17 areas of the 138 km new two-lane highway weren’t safe for large trucks. Tunnels need to be burrowed into some of the mountains along the way.
Meanwhile widespread local opposition to the project has been growing. The Dawei Development Association (DDA), a local grassroots coalition opposed to the project, organized a protest in Dawei in March; one of many over the years. According to their 2014 “Voices from the Ground” report the project will affect upwards of 43,000 people living in 36 small farming and fishing villages on pristine coastline along the Andaman Sea. Residents who sold their land to investors for next to nothing are still waiting to be paid, said the report. Others claimed their land was confiscated. In the report a photograph depicts terrified children that reportedly watch from their homes while bulldozers plowed the family’s orchard.
There are also environmental threats, according to the report. The government intends to use 2000 megawatt coal plant to power construction. Protective coastal mangrove forests have been cleared. Road construction and deforestation has compromised watersheds causing erosion dirtying rivers and streams. The area is home to many quintessential fishing villages that rely on the pristine coastline along the Andaman Sea for their daily livelihood. If the project goes through life in this quiet and remote corner of the world will be forever changed. However, for some locals long limited by the depressed economy it’s a chance they are willing to take, even if they don’t completely understand the ramifications the mammoth project will have on their lives and their children’s.
Less than a half a kilometer from the deep-seaport, fishermen in Nga Pea Dat village remained hopeful of the DSEZ’s potential to bring much needed jobs to the region – a promise that was the main feature of initial marketing strategy touted by project proponents.