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Uncertainties for Myanmar’s coastal farmers: the birth of a Special Economic Zone in Kyauk Phyu

Written by John Chettleborough, Head of Agricultural Markets and Enterprise Unit, GRAISEA 

A woman in Kyauk Phyu is selecting prawns to sell at a local market.

A woman in Kyauk Phyu is selecting prawns to sell at a local market. Fishing and aquaculture are major sectors for the local communities in Kyauk Phyu and are just some of the livelihoods areas that may be affected by the wider economic changes in Rakhine State.

Khaing Zin Oo (not her real name) sat on the mat, inside her modest wooden house, telling us how she helped the community get compensation from the company that built a small dam on their land. Outside the rain came down in sheets as it always does at this time of year in Kyauk Phyu. We were just outside Kyauk Phyu (Chow-Pyoo) where Oxfam’s GRAISEA 1 programme is supporting women to have a greater influence in their communities and to benefit from investment in the new Special Economic Zone (SEZ), which will transform the face of Kyauk Phyu. Khaing, who had been trained by Oxfam’s GRAISEA programme on social accountability mechanisms and women’s rights, told us how she mobilised local people and the village administrators to demand compensation for the land that was acquired by the government. Khaing also made use of existing community networks she was a member of to negotiate, and the compensation was eventually paid.

Khaing lives in one of the most difficult environments you can imagine for women’s livelihoods, empowerment and corporate accountability. Years of military rule and corruption in Myanmar have starved areas like this of infrastructure and even the most basic of services. You see this in the roads in the area – they are one lane and pot-holed resulting in traffic moving very slowly..

Whilst the proposed SEZ will eventually have a significant impact on business opportunities in Kyauk Phyu, the private sector is yet to meaningfully develop, formal value chains and value addition are limited – so opportunities to develop livelihoods are scant. Decades of strong state control have undermined social networks and trust. Collective action is a rarity and women’s organisations are very scarce. Many of the institutions you could rely on to impart information, mobilise people and provide social capital simply aren’t there. Social norms marginalise women significantly with the majority of people, including women themselves, who often cannot believe that women have the capacity to be leaders. The High levels of unpaid care work and gender based violence often fuelled by high levels of alcohol abuse further hinder women’s participation in society and the economy.

Throw into this mix, a new SEZ, anticipated to contribute 10 billion USD a year to Myanmar’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and create over 100,000 jobs in a new industrial park 2. Following an open tender, a Singaporean consortium led by CPG Corporation was selected as the consulting partner to the lead the development, and it was not until December 2015 – a year and a half later – that the government announced which company would lead the development of a deep-sea port and the industrial zone. The project is likely to consume a lot of / over 1,600 Hectares of land 3 and The culture of secrecy that exists in Myanmar means it is difficult to ascertain  exactly what plans are afoot, and little information has been made available on the development of this economic zone.

But there are opportunities. The area desperately needs investment. If the SEZ could develop in a way that provides decent employment for local women and men and stimulates the local agricultural economy, it could become an example of how to fuel inclusive growth that is replicable across the country. We met inspiring women like Thin Zar Nwe (not her real name), a local entrepreneur who engages in trading of rice and locally produced kerosene, dabbles in pig breeding and has a small shop – and also gives something back to the community by teaching local children. The fact that she has achieved so much in such a difficult environment is testament to her personal strength and spirit.

Boats at the river side in Kyauk Phyu Township, Rakhine State, where a major Special Economic Zone is in development.

Boats at the river side in Kyauk Phyu Township, Rakhine State, where a major Special Economic Zone is in development. Oxfam is working through “Tatlan” (Move Forward), a LIFT funded project, and other programmes to help ensure communities have sustainable livelihoods now and into the future preparing communities for the challenges and opportunities that will come with this new development.

As the SEZ expands it may lead to an increase in the number of private sector actors and an expansion in agricultural markets to meet a potential new or increasing local demand as a result of the development. Women like Thin Zar Nwe will be able to take advantage of this and could become even more influential in promoting women’s economic empowerment. GRAISEA could potentially support and catalyse this process by positioning other women so that they are better able to take advantage of these opportunities as they arise. For instance, take the issue of unpaid care. It is one of the factors that will limit women’s ability to take advantage of these opportunities if not addressed. It is not immediately apparent how to tackle it – no one has engaged on this issue in the area yet. So there is an opportunity in the next 2 years for GRAISEA to do something innovative, and that supports learning on how to address this issue so that more women can follow the example of Thin Zar Nwe or benefit from employment opportunities created by people like her.

Of course, the danger is that the SEZ will not provide these opportunities: it will use cheaper migrant labour or only provide exploitive, precarious employment; it will undermine local agricultural livelihoods through land confiscation and food importation on a large scale. So much depends on whether the companies involved as well as the Government – local and national – take a strong business and human rights based approach to this development, ensuring the process protects people’s interests, rights and provides opportunities rather than takes them away.

Local civil society could be an important set of actors in influencing this over-arching course of events. Civil society in Kyauk Phyu is small and growing, but it has already had some success already in promoting issues relating to community rights and land ownership. Some local Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are already active in supporting communities to understand land rights and the due process for compensation. In the future, they may provide opportunities to influence corporate behaviour more broadly, such as on employment opportunities and labour conditions. Grass roots CSOs like this have a notoriously long list of capacity development and funding needs to help strengthen their work. The GRAISEA programme budget would not be able to accommodate a comprehensive CSO development programme so further thought and action needs to be taken by Oxfam and other development stakeholders on how to support the needs of the CSOs, and the wider communities they represent – Oxfam in Myanmar is already exploring other funding options to help sustain the work going on under GRAISEA into the future.

I left Kyauk Phyu with mixed feelings. It is a complex situation. Behind every opportunity there is a challenge but behind every challenge there might be an opportunity. Clearly, despite the difficult operating environment, there are openings to support local action that drives women’s leadership, business for human rights and livelihoods development. And the SEZ might just provide an opportunity to develop local economies in ways not yet seen in Myanmar. The GRAISEA programme in Myanmar could help to trigger this; at the very least it will help protect people’s rights and ensure their lives and livelihoods are not harmed by the development. In the meantime Khaing Zin Oo and Thin Zar Nwe will be there, as a source of inspiration and optimism for the future.

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