10 June 2014

The entrance to the Thilawa Special Economic Zone in Yangon (Wikimedia Commons).

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has rejected allegations that it betrayed its own guidelines on “environmental and social considerations” in the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ), in which it has a 10 percent equity stake.

The charges were levelled by residents of the Myaing Thar Yar resettlement village, home to 68 families displaced by construction of the project’s 400-hectare first phase (Class A). Last week, three villagers presented JICA with a formal complaint at the agency’s headquarters in Tokyo, supported by Japanese activist organisation Mekong Watch.

In a statement, the villagers accused JICA of defaulting on “its responsibility to improve or at least restore displaced persons’ standard of living.”

Masahiko Tanaka, JICA’s chief representative in Burma, claimed that, although JICA provided funds and technical assistance to facilitate the relocation, issues relating to compensation and compliance with “international standards” are ultimately the government’s responsibility.

“On resettlement issues, and social considerations, towards the project-affected people, mainly, responsibility is [with] the government of Myanmar [Burma], not JICA,” he told DVB. “Until now, we think the government of Myanmar has conducted [itself] very well concerning the social and environmental aspects … in accordance with international standards.”

Japanese entities hold 49 percent equity in the first phase of the project. A consortium of three industrial conglomerates – Marubeni, Misubishi and Sumitomo – holds the remaining 39 percent, aside from JICA’s 10 percent share. The remaining 51 percent is held by the Burmese government and an investment company comprised of nine privately-owned Burmese firms.

The resettled villagers were given two options for compensation: a pre-constructed house on a 25-by-50-foot plot, or title to a plot of the same size and 2.5 million kyat (US$2,500) to cover construction expenses. Despite certain amenities afforded to the villagers – including electricity, which they were largely bereft of before – many feel JICA has not lived up to its obligations.

The relocated village is located at the bottom of a hill, roughly five kilometres from the project site, which residents claim is plagued by drainage problems. Visiting DVB reporters were told that, although an improved road to the village has been built, its inhabitants are forced to rely on expensive motorcycle taxis for transportation – costs which can account for more than half of their daily wages.

“If we work in the project area, we will get paid 5,000 kyat [$5] per day … in the ports, jobs usually pay 3,000 kyat per day,” a local resident told DVB. “But to take a motorcycle to work back and forth, it would cost 3,000 kyat.

“We have asked for bus and transportation systems to get to our workplaces, daily, but they were not supplied to us,” he said.

JICA’s Tanaka claimed that the transport-related compensation of 72,000 kyat ($72) provided to every person displaced was sufficient, and that the quality of the road was praiseworthy enough – despite the fact that the villagers remain without reliable transportation.

“JICA’s guidelines say, ‘Don’t make things worse’. Our guidelines don’t say, ‘[Make people] rich!’” Tanaka said. “Of course, some improvements should be done. But what I want to say is, not to make these farmers rich men, or millionaires.”

Mekong Watch and the Thilawa Social Development Group, the banner under which some villagers have organised to take on JICA, have also made repeated complaints to the agency about the quality of their drinking water. Tanaka claimed the agency has been working with the government to remedy the situation.

“Yes, the government and [JICA] understand that the drinking water is not so good. I understand that the government is now trying to make a new, deep well,” he said.

Some 4,500 people face displacement as construction gets underway on the second phase of the 2,400-hectare project.  The 400-hectare first phase is set to open by the middle of next year, and around 300,000 jobs are expected to be created once both phases are completed.

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