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A Foreseeable Disaster in Burma: Forced Displacement in the Thilawa Special Economic Zone

By Physicians for Human Rights  •  November 13, 2014

PHR reportExecutive Summary

Recent liberalization of some governmental policies in Burma (officially the Union of Myanmar) has led to the lifting of a number of bilateral sanctions and increases in foreign aid and investment. Both governments and corporations are entering into partnerships with Burmese companies to undertake major development projects, including building special economic zones (SEZ), developing hydroelectric dams, signing concession agreements for mining operations, and building pipelines. Despite their potential to create opportunities for economic advancement, such development projects are causing widespread forced displacement throughout the country, undermining the human rights of the people living in affected areas.

Forced displacement threatens people on every continent. Environmental degradation, conflict, the race for scarce resources, development projects, and land grabs have caused a significant number of these illegal displacements. People living in marginalized communities, including ethnic minorities and indigenous groups, are particularly vulnerable to forced displacement.

Forced displacement affects a number of human rights issues in the short term, and, if unaddressed, can contribute to a downward spiral into increasing insecurity and loss of rights. Health status, access to health care, and food security are indicators that often serve as early warning signs of the longer term negative human rights consequences of forced displacement. Food insecurity is particularly devastating for children as it can lead to stunting, which has lifelong consequences on health and development. The following survey and report seek to document the adverse effects on individuals, families, and communities when relocation policies displace populations in violation of international guidelines.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) developed an epidemiological survey tool to identify and assess the human rights consequences of such forced displacements. This tool and resulting findings will strengthen the imperative for governments to avoid displacement whenever possible, and to adhere to existing guidelines when eviction is unavoidable.

The Thilawa SEZ (including the towns of Alwan Sot and Thilawa Kone Tan) is one example in Burma that illustrates the negative effects of development projects on the rights of local populations. Situated near Thilawa port, located approximately 15 miles (25 kilometers) south of Rangoon, the SEZ comprises 2,400 hectares of farmland that will be developed into factory sites. The Japanese government and three Japanese companies partnered with the Burmese government and a consortium of Burmese companies to develop phase one of the site. The business plan for the development project claims that it will yield a profit of $53.3 million by 2018. For the people living in the area, however, their forced displacement is leading to the loss of the farmland that was their source of income and livelihood. Phase one of the project, which began in 2013, resulted in the forced displacement of 68 households. Phase two of the project will displace an additional 846 households.

International guidelines for this type of eviction stipulate that displacement may occur in “exceptional circumstances” as long as certain guarantees are met, including that the eviction is carried out in accordance with international human rights laws, is reasonable and proportional, and is regulated to ensure full and fair compensation. The displacement should not have negative impacts on the standard of living of those displaced. These guidelines apply regardless of whether or not individuals hold formal title to their home and property. In the Thilawa case, the Burmese government agreed to follow these standards, and the Japanese government has similar policies in place for its development projects.

In August 2014, PHR performed a survey of 29 households displaced by phase one of the project (representing 42.6 percent of the total number of displaced and 78.4 percent of the total number remaining at the relocation site) and conducted 22 key informant interviews. PHR found that the displacement process fell significantly short of meeting international guidelines, most notably because the residents felt threatened by the government with lawsuits and imprisonment if they did not move. Furthermore, the compensation allotted to displaced persons was insufficient for them to maintain their livelihoods. While monetary compensation was given for crops, animals, and houses, sanitation conditions in the relocation village, constructed by the Burmese government, did not meet international (Sphere) standards5 for refugee camps. All of the wells and pumps provided by the government were improperly constructed and found to be contaminated with bacteria found in human feces. Given that the displacement at Thilawa SEZ was planned, the situation for those who were relocated should be significantly higher than required by Sphere, which assumes displacement was caused a humanitarian crisis, such as a natural disaster or complex emergency.

Farmers who lost their land were not provided with other means or training to successfully earn a living. People who previously worked in nearby industries were forced to leave their jobs because the commute from the more isolated relocation site was prohibitively expensive. The average household income dropped by 78.1 percent after relocation, 26 households (89.7 percent) reported not having enough money to meet their needs, and 23 households (79.3 percent) reported borrowing money to meet their needs.

The loss of livelihoods has additional adverse consequences for food security and the health status of displaced households. Eight households (27.6 percent) reported higher levels of household hunger after displacement, and 13.6 percent of children surveyed suffered from mild malnutrition. Displacement has exacerbated already poor access to health care, with more than twice as many households reporting an inability to receive treatment when sick (16 households following relocation versus seven prior to relocation). The combination of severely diminished income, increasing food insecurity, and constrained access to health care creates a precarious situation for displaced residents. Without intervention to improve livelihoods, the nutrition and health situation in the relocation site will continue to deteriorate.

The Thilawa SEZ committee is charged with managing and running the daily affairs of the development project, including the relocation process. During phase one of the project, affected households were not consulted, received inadequate compensation, and were given limited time to prepare for relocation, violating not only the communities’ right to adequate housing, but also their right to health and effective remedy.

The small community PHR sampled during this survey serves as a harbinger of adverse consequences for the additional 846 households that will be displaced during phase two of the Thilawa project. Unless the governments of Japan and Burma achieve a standard of practice consonant with their stated commitment to international norms and guidelines, these 846 households will very likely suffer a fate similar to those affected during phase one. The recommendations below highlight several opportunities for the Burmese government and its Japanese partners to prevent the impending disaster and forge a positive future in partnership with affected communities.

Download the full report here.

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This post is in: Business and Human Rights, Spotlight

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