Special economic zones and advocacy organisations

February 14, 2017

There might not be as much bulldozer consultation now, but how do advocacy organisations in Myanmar influence new economic development projects.

 

Special economic zones are “special” in the sense that they have a unique set of rules and regulations about business activity. SEZs, in for example Thilawa or Dawei, are designed for businesses to be able to bypass the complicated government laws and rules that apply the rest of the country.

 

But they are also “special” for other reasons. Special Economic Zones are sites of intensive investment and economic activity but also intensive political activity – as development plans and implementation are contested by companies, government, local communities and advocacy organisations. They are "special" in the sense that they can give us a window into what the political dynamics around development might look like in the future in Myanmar.

 

This week is the Myanmar Update conference in Canberra at the Australian National University. Pyae Phyo Maung (fellow PK Forum writer) and I are presenting some ideas (feel free to give us any feedback!) on Special Economic Zones. We are especially interested in the work of local advocacy organisations as they seek to influence the planning and implementation of these SEZ projects.

 

Things have changed in Myanmar. Back in the days before the Thein Sein transition, companies and government mostly just used “bulldozer consultation”. There wasn’t much space for communities or local groups to protest, or negotiate about how things were done – they just had to make the best of it.

 

But over the last five or so years a whole raft of new laws and policies have emerged – there are, for example, new investment laws and land laws at the national level and then special economic zone committees which set the rules at the local level. And then there are also international standards as well, for example when JICA gives support to the Thilawa SEZ project they are bound by certain wider rules about complaint mechanisms.

 

So how do advocacy organisations navigate in this new era of “development” in Myanmar? What new opportunities are there? And what challenges are there for advocacy groups trying to influence development projects to make them less damaging to communities and the environment?

 

On one hand, the situation is markedly better for local advocacy organisations than five years ago. Political liberalisation in the country is patchy but overall there is far more space for groups to engage in negotiation and protest. And along with this the Myanmar media has become a potent vehicle for expressing opinion.

 

There are many more connections to national and international civil society groups who can provide funding and technical support. And improvements in communication technology - the local group Dawei Watch has almost 30,000 followers on Facebook - and just simple infrastructure like roads, has revolutionised the way advocacy groups can organise.

 

But things are also tough for advocacy groups as they try to influence plans and implementation of projects in Thilawa or Dawei. Advocacy groups can’t match the financial resources of the many private sector lobbyists, who have greater access to government decision makers and often also greater access to technical data and information.

 

Advocacy groups can’t be simultaneously lobbying on a hundred different laws and policies, as companies are able to do. Therefore they often have to focus on particular issues which have a high public profile, for example land claims, or, a few year ago, the coal fired power plant in Dawei.

 

Advocacy organisation strategies also rely heavily on their connections to communities and their perceived legitimacy in representing those voices. But there are two things which make this difficult.

 

First, over time, communities themselves may not remain unified on a particular demand that they want to make. For example, some families will take the compensation or the alternative housing that businesses offer, while others will resist it. Communities often become fractured, meaning that is harder for advocacy groups to claim that they represent the unified voices of the community.

Further, in order to influence the way SEZs are planned and implemented advocacy groups need to learn to play a different kind of negotiation “game”. Over time activists, with their new national and international connections, learn to speak the language of business negotiation and lobbying, they learn about other country contexts and acquire new technical knowledge about projects.

 

This all helps to equip activists to increase their influence but at the same time, as one activist in Dawei said, it is a challenge to maintain their original grassroots connections. As they learn to play a different advocacy “game”, those very skills and perspectives potentially create some distance between them and local communities.

 

There is not as much bulldozer consultation in Myanmar any more. And the liberalisation of the country has brought a whole set of new opportunities for advocacy groups seeking to make development projects more people and environmentally centred. 


Yet the new context brings certain challenges for advocacy groups where they seek to engage companies, and governments, who have far greater access to financial resources. The local community connections of many advocacy groups is their strength, but maintaining those grassroots links and seeking to represent local voices is challenging – as communities themselves divide, and as activists learn a new “game” of advocacy.

 

What is happening in Dawei and Thilawa might be a window, for better and worse, into the future of local advocacy organisations in Myanmar.

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