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Burma's $8.5 Billion Port Project Facing Hurdles

  • Daniel Schearf

When Burma's planned Dawei deep-sea port and special economic zone are finished, a highway, railway and pipeline will connect Southeast Asia's largest industrial zone to Thailand’s primary commercial hub.

Although major construction has yet to begin, the planned $8.5 billion project on Burma’s southern coast is already being heralded by the company leading the project, Bangkok-based Italian-Thai Development, as the largest industrial estate in the region.

According to company engineer Suphap Satthatham, the Dawei project would offer everything from a steel mill and oil refinery to automotive assembly and petrochemical facilities.

"The factory will be for the computer part, for the garment, for the cosmetic, for the food processing," he said. "This will be light industry."

While its successful completion could dramatically boost Thai-Burmese trade relations, the project is already encountering financial difficulties and intense local opposition.

Struggling to attract foreign investors such as Japan, Thai and Burmese government authorities have recently taken over fundraising.

Meanwhile, as entire villages are scheduled for demolition, residents say they know little about where they are to be moved to or how they are to be compensated.

"We hear rumors every day that our village is in the project area and we need to move out to another place soon," said Thein Aye, whose children possess newly built homes in areas targeted for development.

While their parcels aren't included on lists of properties eligible for compensation, she says they will refuse to move without offers of adequate compensation.

"Nothing is clear yet," she said.

For motorcycle mechanic Soe Mya, who still does not know where he is expected to move, his livelihood is at risk.

“My current land and house is next to the Main Road — this location is very good for my business," he said. "If I don't get back this kind of a good place in a relocated village, I will not be able do my business there at all."

While Italian-Thai Development officials have taken steps to survey farms for compensation and make villagers more aware of project plans, engineer Satthatham says relocation details are up to government authorities.

"We don't know because this is upon the government plan," he said. "We follow and cooperate well."

Developers have made efforts to spread good will, evening building pagodas for the Buddhist community, but project managers acknowledge there is still much work to do to appease concerns of potential investors and residents alike.