Is answering the phone enough?

Back in May, before villagers filed an official Objection to JICA’s Examiner for JICA’s Environmental and Social Guidelines, JICA ignored villagers’ repeated attempts to communicate their concerns regarding the Thilawa SEZ project.

Since the Objection was filed, JICA has participated in a meeting with villagers, but one can get an idea for how stubbornly JICA neglected villagers in a Q&A with a member of the Japanese Diet who visited the resettlement site on May 1st.

In the Q&A, JICA implies that answering a phone call was a sufficient response to villagers’ repeated letters appealing for opportunities to communicate serious problems they face from the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ).

JICA insisted that it responded to all of 6 letters sent to JICA’s Yangon Office by Thilawa villagers. When pressed for details, however, it became clear that the “response” was simply someone in the Yangon office answering phone inquiries by the villagers to ask why there were getting no answer from JICA.

On May 12, 2014, Mr. Michihiro Ishibashi, a member of the Japanese Diet, raised questions in the Budget Committee towards JICA and MOFA. He asked,

JICA’s Guidelines specify that when stakeholders have concerns that JICA will sincerely respond. Is someone of unknown rank answering the villagers’ telephone inquiry considered to be JICA’s official response?

How did JICA respond to this question?

Yes, this is how we verbally responded.

For more details, see the summary of the questions raised by Mr. Michihiro Ishibashi (Member of the Diet).  He visited the Thilawa SEZ and spoke with relocated villagers on May 1st, and was very concerned about the deteriorating quality of life there, leading him to question whether JCIA’s Guidelines for Environmenal and Social Considerations is being violated or not.

A video recording of the Q&A can be accessed here (in Japanese only): http://www.webtv.sangiin.go.jp/webtv/index.php

A summary of what became clear in this Q&A session is as follows (May 12, 2014):

  • Villagers have written to JICA 6 times explaining serious concerns they are facing due to the Thilawa SEZ.
  • JICA considers answering phone calls from the villagers to JICA’s Yangon office a sufficient response to the letters.
  • Villagers in the remaining 2,000 hectare area have not yet been relocated, but on April 27, the local agricultural department ordered villagers to refrain from further farming this year.
  • JICA claims it is encouraging the Burmese government to resolve outstanding resettlement issues at Thilawa.
  • JICA experts are visiting Thilawa villagers fairly regularly, but as of the Budget Committee hearing on May 12, their visits had not lead to improvement in the villagers’ living conditions.
  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is encouraging the Burmese government to meet World Bank standards in resettlement

Following are the main points (paraphrased by Mekong Watch) during the Q&A between Mr. Ishibashi, JICA’s President Tanaka and Foreign Minister Kishida.

Member of Parliament Ishibashi:
– I visited the Thilawa relocation site and spent 2 hours speaking with villagers resettled out of Phase 1 (400 ha area).
– Villagers said they wrote multiple letters to JICA but got no response. Why has JICA failed to respond?

JICA President Tanaka:
– It is true we received 6 letters.
– We responded verbally every time.
– In principle, the local government should speak with the local stakeholders. The Myanmar government says they are talking to the local people. JICA does not need to come to the forefront.
– JICA experts visit the site. We will continue observing the situation.

M.P. Ishibashi:
– The villagers started sending letters long ago. This indicates that speaking with the Myanmar government has not resolved their problems.  This is why they write to JICA. But they get no response.
– Has JICA really responded? The villagers keep good records. They say that they received responses from JICA only twice, on Feb 3 and April 28, when they  telephoned JICA’s Yangon office to ask why they had not heard from JICA. They spoke to an office employee. Is this what JICA considers to be a responsible answer?
– JICA’s Guidelines specify that when stakeholders have concerns that JICA will sincerely respond. Does JICA consider it an official response when someone of unknown rank answers the villagers’ telephone call? JICA met with villagers once on October 15th last year, but has not met with villagers even once since relocation, though the villagers have repeatedly requested meetings. Isn’t this a violation of the Guidelines?

JICA President Tanaka:
– Yes, this is how we verbally responded.
– There are 2 aspects in regard to whether or not this meets the Guidelines. First, the Myanmar government’s response is in compliance with the Guidelines. JICA experts are continuing to talk to villagers.
– But villagers told you they are still having problems, so we need to investigate further.

M.P. Ishibashi:
– That doesn’t answer my question.
–  I have copies of and have read the villagers’ letters. They are honest and sincere complaints. It is a serious problem that JICA has not responded.
–  Is a telephone call from villagers answered by an employee whose position in the office is unknown considered to be JICA’s official and sincere response? If it is, that is a very severe problem.
–  You say JICA experts are visiting the relocation site. The villagers said they speak to these JICA experts  and explain their concerns, but that nothing happens. So they write letters, and they get no response. What is going on?
–  I have photos. You can see that the homes they used to live in are old, but they have a lot of space. I went to the relocation site, and it is very crowded. There is no place to farm. No place to raise animals.
– The water condition is awful. There is a well, but there is a lot of moss growing in it. Muddy water comes out of the water pumps.
– Houses built by the Myanmar government are poor quality. They already have gaps in the floor and walls only a few months after construction. Villagers knew this would happen, so many decided to build their own. The compensation for housing is insufficient.
– Houses are build on ground lower than the road. This will be a disaster in rainy season. Even after one rain, the ground was soaked.
– There are many children unable to go to school.
– All these problems have been left unaddressed. JICA must take responsibility immediately.

JICA President Tanaka:
– There are many outstanding problems. I know this. I will raise these issues with the Myanmar government.
– We want to continue this project and communications in a way that will respect the Myanmar government’s sovereignty and balance that with JICA’s demands.

M.P. Ishibashi:
– There should be 3rd party monitoring for this project.

JICA President Tanaka:
– The Myanmar government knows that there will be 3rd party monitoring to ensure the Guidelines are being followed.

M.P. Ishibashi:
– The villagers know nothing about the 3rd party monitoring. If the villagers are not part of this process, it will mean nothing. If 3rd party monitoring is going to be conducted, JICA must ensure that villagers participate in this.
–  (Question to MOFA)  I spoke to villagers from the 2,000 ha area. They are seeing what is happening to the Phase 1 villagers and are very worried.
– For example, although they are still farming (in the 2,000ha area), irrigation has been cut off. They cannot farm in the dry season any more and their income has drastically declined. They were also told at a meeting with the Ministry of Agriculture on April 27th to stop farming, even though the villagers may not be relocated for a few more years. MOFA should also take responsibility and ensure that stakeholder participation.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Kishida:
– The Thilawa SEZ project is to help the growth of Myanmar’s economy through direct foreign investment, and to reduce poverty by providing employment. It is a very meaningful project.
– As you mentioned, when there is resettlement, it is very important that sufficient consideration is given to appropriate measures for restoring livelihood and villagers’ opinions.
– We are telling the Myanmar government that international standards must be upheld in resettlement. We should make sure that the Myanmar government respects international guidelines, such as the World Bank guidelines.

M.P. Ishibashi:
– If stakeholders and civil society are not consulted appropriately, ODA cannot be implemented properly. As the Japanese government, make sure to take responsibility.

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One Response to Is answering the phone enough?

  1. Pingback: Housing Conditions at Thilawa SEZ Relocation Site | mekong watch: Burma/Myanmar

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