Thilawa Special Economic Zone - An Overview of Forced Evictions and Land Rights Violations

Thilawa Special Economic Zone - An Overview of Forced Evictions and Land Rights Violations

Photo of relocation house in Thilawa project
One of the houses provided by the Government in the relocation site built for the displaced 68 households affected by Phase I of the Thilawa SEZ Project — Image Credits

Land confiscation in the Thilawa Special Economic Zone affected more than 4,000 people residing in six villages. The second phase of the joint investment between the Myanmar and Japanese governments will be implemented in the next few months. HBS Myanmar went on site in order to gather information about the current state of the project and related human rights violations.


Located on Yangon southeastern outskirts, Thilawa is the most advanced of Myanmar’s Special Economic Zones (SEZs), which also include Dawei in Tanintharyi Region and Kyaukphyu in Rakhine State. From the very first moment, the national government advertised Thilawa as a pioneer project, which will supposedly benefit the whole country, through the establishment of strong partnerships between public and private sector.


Ever since the project design was being developed in 2012, the Thilawa SEZ has been promoted by Myanmar stakeholders as a “transparent” and “exclusively inclusive” project, in terms of investors involved, which would lead to the creation of thousand jobs for Myanmar people.


The industrial park is a Japanese-Myanmar joint venture. The initiative was launched by the Myanmar government, the Japan International Cooperation Agency and local businesses, as well as a Japanese consortium composed of Sumitomo Corp., Mitsubishi Corp. and Marubeni. Altogether, the zone is expected to host 73 companies from 16 different countries, with Japan easily holding the biggest share.

The first phase of the project covers roughly 400 hectares and was launched in September 2015. Phase 2, yet to be developed, is expected to affect another 2,000 hectares of land.

As reported by the Nikkei Asian Review on July 14, up to date the industrial park has attracted USD 760 million in investment since the initiative launched in March 2014. This figure is expected to further grow to USD 1 billion by 2020.

Claimed as a strong example for the Myanmar’s foreign-investment momentum, the Thilawa SEZ has been raising concerns among civil society ever since it was designed. For local communities, the development of Phase 1 meant eviction of 81 households, 68 of which have been displaced to a newly-built (but very-poor-standard) relocation site in November 2013.

The SEZ project is not the first one to threaten the livelihoods of rural households in Thilawa. In 1996-1997 the military government known as State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) confiscated 1,230 hectares of land in the very same area, in order to build the Thanlyin-Kyauk Tan Industrial Zone. During those months, an estimated 800 households were ordered to relocate. The SLORC provided compensation to some of them, which, however, did not correspond consistently to the market value of land at that time. In spite of such developments, the industrial zone project never came to life and households were allowed returning to their farmland; some of them had to resume paying taxes until 2013.

Following a 2012 agreement between the Myanmar Government and the Japanese External Trade Organization (JETRO) to establish the first SEZ in Myanmar, the national government planned to re-confiscate the land already taken by the SLORC almost two decades before, plus an additional 1,200 hectares. Villagers were notified to leave their houses in two-weeks time and threatened with a 30 days-jail term if they objected confiscation.

HBS has recently met farmers residing in the relocation site, in order to see where things currently stand in the state of human rights violations related to the Thilawa SEZ project.

After almost 3 years and despite consultations were held between villagers and stakeholders, the redeployment process still lacks accountability and transparency. After advocacy campaigns took place and the Thilawa Social Development Group (TSDG) was formed, negotiation meetings were finally held by the Yangon Regional Government in collaboration with the Thilawa SEZ Committee.

However, according to findings, consultations were not conducted in an inclusive manner. Only the 68 households willing to relocate were allowed to attend negotiations. The members of TSDG, who were not directly affected by the projects and belonged to civil society instead were excluded from discussions. This severely hindered community participation. None of the requests made by villagers - concerning monetary compensation, plot size, housing standards, water sewage etc. – has been met. Women did not usually take part in discussions, unless their husbands were “full of activity”. During these meetings, authorities were only willing to discuss compensation for crops, for which they used the word “gratuity”, since they claimed farmers had already received land "compensation" in 1996-7. 

All in all, those who lost their land were given neither adequate compensation nor valid livelihood alternatives. The new 25x50 plots are too small for farmers to make a living out of them. After having their land confiscated, communities were also denied agricultural loans coming from the government. Subsequently, displaced villagers are currently relying mainly on high-interest loans from local businessmen and casual labor to make ends meet.

Out of the 68 displaced households, 20 had no other choice but to sell their houses, in order to cover debts. Some of them abusively built small huts nearby the site and live in destitution.

Although authorities promised them privileged access to jobs in the new industries, trainings were not provided and villagers were not granted employment, mainly because of their lack of education. And even the 2 or 3 people who got a job in the SEZ are merely employed as janitors or security guards.

Communities residing in the remaining 2000 has have not been informed about when and where they will be relocated and how much land and compensation they will get, once the project will affect their area. The Myanmar government announced that Phase 2 will take place in the next few months. In the meantime, consultations on resettlement are ongoing, but it is expected that the same problems faced by displaced households will occur again.

By learning from the experience of Phase I, it is now crucial for the National Government, as well as for the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and other stakeholders to ensure fair compensation as well as adequate living standards to all displaced residents. Relocation must neither imply a decrease in living standards, nor losses in income. In fact, villagers should benefit from inclusive consultations, complaint mechanisms and an effective income restoration program.

Thilawa’s controversial history reflects long-standing problems in the acknowledgement of customary and traditional law in Myanmar, as well as a history of national-driven land confiscation to make space for big investments. With the new government coming to power and the country experiencing an investment surge, it is expected that the land legal framework will effectively take into account land issues related to foreign direct investments. With regards to this, the future National Land Use Policy has to prove itself as part of a larger and crucial effort to improve legal conditions for land administration and social justice in Myanmar. What will happen in Thilawa will set an example for the development of the other SEZ projects in Dawei and Kyaukphyu, where even more significant problems are to be faced. It will be therefore crucial for the new government to ensure that the investment spike Myanmar is experiencing will no longer affect the rights and livelihoods of local communities. 


Cristina Donateo is a young graduate in International Development currently carrying out a research on human rights violations related to FDI in Myanmar at HBS Office in Yangon. 

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