(Update on trespassing charge) Burma (Myanmar) Thilawa SEZ: Is waiting for appropriate resettlement measures and compensation equivalent to trespassing?

Translation of 26 Oct 2014 Mekong Watch Japanese blog post by Abante.

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PHOTO: Last home remaining in the Phase 1 area

“I still live here even after the police charged me with trespassing. But I’m more anxious now. If I were the only one to be arrested, that would ok, but my family…”

In early October, I visited Kyaw Win’s house. As usual, he began speaking simply and straightforwardly, but he also lowered his gaze to look towards his wife and infant daughter sitting at his side.

On September 26th, he was summoned to the Yangon Division Thanlyin Township Police Station. He went with his wife and son, and they were detained and charged with trespassing under Myanmar Penal Code 447 (for more details, see 1 Oct 2014 blog entry).

His family is the last one remaining in the Phase 1 (400 hectare) area of the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ), a development project supported by both Japanese government and private sectors. Kyaw Win’s family received part of their compensation package, but after beginning to build their house at the plot provided at the resettlement site and realizing that the compensation was insufficient to construct his home, and then also finding that he had no space to continue raising the cows that were his main source of livelihood, he decided to return to his home in Phase 1.

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Photo: The kitchen behind Kyaw Win’s house.

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Photo: Some firewood near his house.

As Kyaw Win showed me to the kitchen built behind his house, he said, “See? There’s so much more space here than at the resettlement site.” There was firewood piled up for kitchen use and a water source a few meters away. Most significant of all was the space available for his cattle to graze.

Many of the 67 households that already moved to the resettlement site have used up their compensation and are living in very difficult circumstances. Thirty families have already left their homes at the resettlement site in search of a means of livelihood elsewhere. Many of the 37 families remaining at the resettlement site are struggling to make a living somehow while bearing the burden of increasing debt.

Faced with this severe situation, 3 residents filed an official objection to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in June. Kyaw Win was one of them, and though still waiting for the investigation results to be reported in early November, he was temporarily detained at the end of September. (translator’s note: The results have just been posted on JICA’s website on 4 Nov 2014)

From the beginning, both the Burmese government—the main promoter of the project—and JICA, who is aiding the Burmese government, publicly pledged to uphold international standards for resettlement. But neither alternative farm land nor compensation for land were provided. Promises for employment opportunities have not been fulfilled.

There is one simple reason Kyaw Win decided to return to his original home rather than move to the resettlement site, and that is to continue his simple daily life. And if one sees the situation at the resettlement site, his decision to do so is completely understandable. He continues his simple life at his home, as he also requests that the Burmese government and JICA fulfill their pledges to meet international standards for appropriate resettlement and compensation measures. Does this constitute trespassing

Police: If you tear down your house and leave, we will retract the charges.

KW: I cannot do that.

Police: How long have you lived there?

KW: For generations.

Police: How long has your wife lived there?

KW: The same. For generations.

Police: You accepted some of your compensation. Why don’t you get out?

KW: It’s not that I wanted to accept it. The government official said he would report me to higher authorities, so (feeling afraid) I took the compensation.

Police: So you understand that you’re dealing with the government. You’ll be put in jail.

KW: … (speechless)

With two guarantors, Kyaw Win and his family were released on bail that night. He said that he had the above exchange with a police officer while being detained at the police station.

His family’s livelihood is at stake, so he cannot give in easily. Still, maintaining the strength to not give up in face of the officer’s threats was by no means an easy feat.

October 24th was the day by which Kyaw Win was to have been notified of the date for the first court hearing, after his case was considered by prosecutors (within 28 days of being charged). As of Oct 24th, however, he has received no such notice, so there is an emerging possibility he will not be prosecuted.

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Photo: bulldozer at work, visible from KW’s house.

If one visits his home, however, one cannot help but feel a sense of urgency when seeing the impending changes. Preparation of land for development from the south end of Phase 1 has begun just 250 meters from Kyaw Win’s house located on the north side. And the developers are gradually getting closer. From his home, one can see the bulldozer at work, and in a few months, or perhaps even a few days… There may come a day when his house is forcibly destroyed by a bulldozer. It is clear that his standard of living will severely drop if the current situation continues and he has no other choice but to move to the resettlement site, losing the income he now gets from raising his cows.

Kyaw Win stood tall, arms akimbo, gaze focused south. He said, “No one needs to come and help. If it continues like this, I’d rather die than leave my home.”

All he is requesting is recognition of basic rights; it is outrageous that it has come to this. Just when he thought he was seeing freedom from life under a military regime, he and his family are suffering unnecessarily because of one development project being promoted by Japan.

What can we do? Is continuing to demand that JICA ensures immediate measures to guarantee his current standard of living at the resettlement site before reclamation work reaches his house all we can do?

I felt so strongly I wanted to stay at his house with his family until appropriate measures are put into place. But that is impossible, and I am again made aware of how small we are. Even still, the least I must do is continue trying everything I can to get JICA to take action.

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