Mechanical diggers on the pristine beaches near the sleepy fishing town of Dawei are a sign that change is coming to the remote corner of Myanmar — but not necessarily for the better.
The area has been chosen for a vast port complex that is the latest example of how foreign investment from Asian allies like China and Thailand is transforming the military-dominated nation despite Western sanctions.
Some believe the 10-year, US$8 billion Dawei Development Project, led by a Thai industrial giant, could invigorate the country’s impoverished economy and revolutionize regional trade.
However, hopes that the planned deep-sea port and giant industrial estate will inject much-needed investment have been tempered by fears about a potential influx of “dirty” industry and concerns that it will displace thousands.
“Myanmar still ignores environmental issues,” Tanit Sorat of the Federation of Thai Industries said in an interview with reporters, citing lack of regulation as a key advantage of Dawei.
“Dawei is the world’s solution for industry that affects the environment, heavy industry and the industry that is banned in other countries,” he said, adding that the entire project could be worth US$60 billion or more.
A local aid worker and campaigner, who estimates 23,000 people will have to move, said the first phase of construction was already altering the quiet tropical town of his childhood.
“The shores are so beautiful, with their long white sands, but in a couple of years it will all be gone,” said the activist, whose name has been withheld to protect his security.
He said that because of a lack of regulation and entrenched cronyism in Myanmar, the development is likely to be “very corrupt,” while soaring property prices are already putting pressure on local people.
“The government does not consider the people, it just does what it does,” he said.
David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch said there were few details available on Dawei’s potential impact on communities, but previous experience of large-scale developments was of misery for local: “Human rights abuses always accompany these projects, including displacement, land confiscation, forced labor and abuses related to increased military/security presence.”
Such abuses have already been linked to two of Myanmar’s major energy projects currently under construction — pipelines to transport gas from the coast of Rakhine state and oil from the Middle East and Africa across the country to China.
Dawei, on the Andaman coast facing the Indian Ocean, has long been a strategic prize — it was one of Britain’s first colonial conquests in the country in the 19th century.
Somchet Thinaphong, who is managing the project for its developer, Italthai Group, said the project could create up to 100,000 jobs.
“It will lift employment and education very much — think about Thailand 30 years ago,” he said, adding that the Myanmar government sees the project as a link to the outside world.
Economic mismanagement and cronyism during half a century of army rule has left the country isolated and impoverished, despite abundant natural resources. The handover to a nominally civilian government, following last November’s controversial election, has raised tentative hopes among some for change.
However, Sean Turnell, Myanmar economic expert at Macquarie University in Sydney, was skeptical over how much of the investment in the port project would trickle down to local people.