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Thilawa farmers face losing rice fields to SEZ

“Two weeks to abandon your rice paddies or face a month in prison.”

Fear of relocation ... residents of a fishing village at Thilawa say they've been asked to move, but they don't know where to go. (Victoria Bruce/ Mizzima)
Fear of relocation ... residents of a fishing village at Thilawa say they've been asked to move, but they don't know where to go. (Victoria Bruce/ Mizzima)
That was what Kyauktan Township authorities told rice farmer Bar Lue and scores of others like him who make their livelihoods from cultivating rice paddies in the vicinity of the 2,400-hectare Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ) mega-project.

For Bar Lue it’s a big call. The 56-year-old farmer has a wife and 10 children to consider, and said the loss of his monthly income of around 400,000 kyat (US $468) would be devastating.

“We farmers need this land to survive and cannot afford to lose it,” Bar Lue told M-ZINE+ reporter Ko Ko Gyi during a recent visit to the proposed Thilawa SEZ site.

“But if we have to move or get resettled in the future, we will demand the compensation that we deserve,” he said.

San Win, a neighboring farmer in the village of Thida Myaing, which borders the proposed Thilawa development site, told M-ZINE+ that the local authorities had informed him and 57 other farmers in writing on January 31 that they must abandon their rice paddies within two weeks or face spending 30 days in prison.

He showed M-ZINE+ his eviction notice which said that 4,233.19 acres of land in four local quarters − Aye Mya Thida, Thida Myaing, Thilawa and Kont Tant – were unauthorized for cultivation and therefore must be abandoned by those working there within two weeks. No mention was made of compensation or alternative sites where the farmers could cultivate rice. Any resident opposing the decision could face 30 days imprisonment, it said.

“These fields have been in my family for generations,” San Win said. “I was hoping to pass them on to my children. If I lose my farm, I have no idea what I will do or how I will survive in the future.”

San Win, who supports a family of six, stands to lose 30 acres. He is under no illusion that without a livelihood he will be forced to leave Thida Myaing.

The prospect of moving does not appeal to any of the farmers M-ZINE+ spoke to. As real estate prices in the area have increased exponentially since the SEZ was announced, none could afford to buy land in neighboring townships.

A Reuters report on January 23 quoted a local farmer, Win Aung, who supports a family of 12 by farming 30 acres.

He is quoted as saying that he was forced to sell his land at $20 per acre to Myanmar's military junta in the 1990s. The government did not take over the land at that time, but is now demanding that the villagers vacate to make way for the development.

“That puts the matter in a grey area,” Reuters correspondent Antoni Slodkowski said. “The villagers are asking for extra compensation but the government has refused, although prices around Thilawa are [now valued] between $10,000 and $20,000 per acre.”

The debacle over land confiscations and inadequate compensation is yet another stumbling block on the road to the development of this multi-billion-dollar industrial zone and port project which is due to be situated 25 km southeast of Yangon.

The project is being spearheaded as a joint venture by the Japanese and Myanmar governments, and has been touted as a solution to Myanmar’s infrastructure shortage and as one of President Thein Sein’s 2015 election milestones. If and when completed, Thilawa SEZ will be Southeast Asia’s largest economic zone.

The industrial project has been strongly supported by the Japanese government, which recently announced it would write off more than half of Myanmar’s debt, as well as offering a minimal-interest loan of $56.1 million this year in overseas development aid, on the understanding that $22.4 million of that loan is earmarked for the development of Thilawa SEZ.

The site will be developed by a private consortium of three Japanese firms − Mitsubishi, Sumitomo and Marubeni Corporations − and three Myanmar firms, said Ichiro Maruyama, the deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy.

Speaking to M-ZINE+ on Monday, Maruyama said the Thilawa land rights situation was “very complicated”, but that the Myanmar government was responsible for the relocations.

“We are following the government and we can’t do anything about the relocations,” he said. “We are ready to work with the government to resolve this case, under the existing rules and regulations.”

His comments come as a 140-strong delegation from the Japan Business Federation, known as Keidanren, visits Myanmar this week to lobby for Japanese business interests.

“Keidanren hopes to address problems blocking Japanese companies from doing business in Myanmar, including flaws in its legal system, at a time when business opportunities are expected to grow in the slowly democratizing Southeast Asian country,” said the Japan Times.

According to Jared Bissinger, a PhD candidate from Australia's Macquarie University who studies Myanmar economy: “The Thilawa project could provide a big boost for Myanmar's economy by creating jobs and helping the country connect more efficiently with international markets.

"But local people need to be involved in these projects, not just by having the chance at a job somewhere down the road, but also by having a voice in the process,” he told M-ZINE+.

For a full feature story on Thilawa SEZ and the issues surrounding the relocation of local residents and the confiscation of lands, please read M-ZINE+ (issue 8) which is due to be published on February 21, 2013.

M-ZINE+ is a business weekly available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at

The Kachin’s last stand
Since October this year, Burma has been in a state of civil war, with fighting between Burmese military and armed ethnic rebels. The ruling junta started a crackdown on these armed groups.

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