Development for Whom? Local Communities Lead the Way in Sustainability

February 28th, 2018  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  7 minute read
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While the implementation of the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) has been halted for years due to the widespread environmental and social problems posed by the project, 36 civil society organizations released a statement on February 20, 2018 opposing the Myanmar[1] Government’s plans to restart the construction of the SEZ. This comes just weeks after the Karen National Union (KNU) criticised the resumption of construction of a road that would connect the Dawei SEZ to the Thailand border. Alternatives to such destructive development projects, however, are alive and well, as shown with the launch of a documentary by Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) on indigenous environmental conservation techniques. Environmentally and socially destructive infrastructural construction projects continue to be implemented throughout Myanmar without local communities’ free, prior and informed consent or full and meaningful consultation with local communities.

The Dawei SEZ, which continues to draw wide criticism, has been linked to a litany of negative environmental and livelihood impacts on local communities, and while the discussion on resumption of the project forges on, previous issues such as destruction of communal land and natural resources, and harms resulting from earlier phases of the project have remained unresolved. Above all, the statement addresses a key concern from the communities who maintain “grave reservations over who really benefits from dirty industries and resource extraction: a few political, economic, and military elites.”

The KNU, one of the largest and most influential ethnic armed organizations in the country, also issued a statement recently regarding road linking Dawei SEZ to the border of Thailand. Construction of the road, which would cut through pristine forests in Tanintharyi Region, was suspended in 2013, following the refusal of Ital-Thai Development, the firm constructing the road, to pay compensation for environmental damage to local communities. The KNU has called for the work to be reinstated only if several demands can be met, which include the completion of environmental impact awareness surveys, adequate compensation, free prior and informed consent and the mitigation of environmental damage. The local population must be recognized as the owners of their ancestral lands and have the rights to either give or withhold the final consent to any projects conducted upon their land.

The CSO statement on Dawei SEZ also called for the Myanmar Government to “pursue alternative development strategies without delay, such as sustainable agriculture, fisheries, and community-based tourism.” These alternative development strategies are being practiced with success by indigenous peoples across the country. Such examples were demonstrated in a newly released film by KESAN, ‘Resilience’, which documents indigenous peoples’ traditional conservation methods, while highlighting both the threats to their environment posed by aggressive development as well as the agency of local communities in protecting it. The documentary demonstrates how local conservation techniques are used to ensure that the local resources that indigenous peoples depend on are preserved for future generations. While the film stresses how crucial it is “to respect, recognise and protect indigenous people’s ways of life and traditional livelihood, indigenous knowledge systems and the protection and management of their ancestral lands and environmental resources,” these knowledge systems and traditional conservation techniques continue to be ignored in the rush to conduct large scale and aggressive development projects across the country.

These issues are by no means limited to Karen State. Moreover, these projects can negatively impact the peace process and widen the distrust held by local communities of the central Government. Mono-crop plantations and development projects are all too seldom owned by and implemented by the local community. Local populations, therefore, see little of the profits or the benefits generated by these projects. Furthermore, large scale infrastructural development projects across the country, including the dams on the Namtu River in northern Shan State and Hatgyi Dam in Karen State, have been linked to displacement of the local community as well instigating more conflict. This is just another example of the Government in Naypyidaw not consulting with or listening to the local community and ignoring their best interests and locally-led durable solutions for development. These top-down initiatives and actions continue to increase the deep generational distrust of local communities towards the Government, especially in ethnic areas.

International actors involved in such projects must learn lessons from other countries’ experiences of failed large scale development projects and not make the same mistake again in Myanmar at the expense of its people and future generations of this already conflict-ridden country.

These recommendations regarding Dawei SEZ from CSOs and calls from KESAN have an all too alarming relevance across the country. They highlight the nationwide need for full and meaningful local participation in the decision making processes including designing, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation, as well as free, informed and prior consent relating to any development of land. Due diligence and preparation needs to be undertaken, including high quality environmental impact assessments. Problems related to Dawei, and the problems seen regarding dams and large scale development projects around the country highlight the real need for transparency and access to information. There is a need to respect local people, ethnic and indigenous communities, their ancestral land and territories and to not impinge upon their right to self-determination. If not, these development projects will remain as major drivers of displacement, human rights abuses and as factors in the continuation of conflict across Myanmar. International actors involved in such projects must learn lessons from other countries’ experiences of failed large scale development projects and not make the same mistake again in Myanmar at the expense of its people and future generations of this already conflict-ridden country.


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

Resources from the past week


Statements and Press Releases

Myanmar: Independent Investigation into Military Killing of Four Karenni men Essential for Truth and Justice
By Amnesty International

Over 100 Parliamentarians Call on UK Government to Refer Myanmar Military General Min Aung Hlaing to International Criminal Court
By Burma Campaign UK

Statement on the Diplomatic Visits to Rakhine State in February 2018
By Diplomatic missions in Myanmar by Australia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States

Myanmar: Investigate Whereabouts of Two Kachin Civilians Detained by Military
By Fortify Rights

Myanmar: Rakhine Human Rights Defender Freed Today
By Fortify Rights

Burma: Scores of Rohingya Villages Bulldozed
By Human Rights Watch

New report details Myanmar Army’s use of rape as a weapon against the Rohingya
By Kaladan Press Network

UNFC Council Meeting Press Release
By United Nationalities Federal Council (Union of Burma)

Statement on Government Plans to Resume the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Project
By  36 Myanmar Civil Society Organizations

ႏုိင္ငံေတာ္အစုိးရ၏ ထား၀ယ္အထူးစီးပြားေရးဇုန္စီမံကိန္းကို ျပန္လည္စတင္မည့္ အစီအစဥ္မ်ားအေပၚ သေဘာထားေၾကျငာခ်က္
By  36 Myanmar Civil Society Organizations

Joint Statement: Organizations Call for Outright Rejection of Draft Amendments to the Constitution and Criminal Code
By 64 Human Rights Organizations and Communities



Rape by Command: Sexual violence as a weapon against the Rohingya
By Kaladan Press Network

Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”