By PASKORN JUMLONGRACH
FOUNDER AND REPORTER OF
Dusk had fallen when a huge crowd packed “We Love Dawei” festival at a garden in Dawei, the capital city of the Taninthary region, southern Myanmar. A variety of performances from local artists and their counterparts from neighbouring Thailand drew various groups of festival-goers.
At the venue, a panel discussion on Dawei development also took place.
The festival was held on Dec 3, a joint effort between 20 civil society organisations from Dawei and Thailand which aim to push Dawei tourism as an alternative source of development for local people. They are concerned that relying solely on industrial megaprojects might put local ways of life and the environment at risk.
Our small team of Thai journalists has visited Dawei many times before. We have seen dynamic change in this once small town. A trip in 2012 was our first mission to hear residents’ opinions on the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and deep-sea port projects to be invested in by Thailand.
At that time it seemed Dawei was not ready to welcome foreign visitors. The airport terminal was fairly old. The arrival and immigration process took us a long time to complete. Finding a hotel room with full facilities and services was difficult. However, we were glad to be able to experience the old Dawei.
Every morning, we were greeted by the sound of horses galloping, as horse carriages were a common mode of transportation in Dawei. Another mode of transportation was ox-carts. These were priceless charms of the city that left us spellbound, along with tall toddy palms lining the roads and flawless white sand beaches without footprints. We promised to return to Dawei again and again.
At that time, our team intended to gather information on SEZs and the port project, initiated by a corporation from Thailand and the then junta government of Myanmar. We interviewed villagers from many different areas in Dawei and learned the projects might affect the community more than we had realised. Some residents worried the investment deals with the Myanmar junta would result in people losing their land.
The Myanmar junta granted a 75-year concession to the Thai corporation to construct projects over a vast 250 square kilometre area in the city. Dawei people would be affected by the projects unavoidably, but there was no forum where they could voice their concerns, nor have investors make clarifications. Many said they learned about project development from news reports, not from company representatives.
On the other side of the border, Thai investors paint bright scenarios for the projects with positive information, supported by the two governments. However, glimpses of the projects through the eyes of the locals were different. Our team decided to air Dawei people’s views so Thais could understand the hidden costs of the projects. I visited Dawei several times later, but I saw local people riding horse carriages and ox-carts less and less. Classic English automobiles from the colonial era were also disappearing from many streets. They were replaced by new imported vehicles. Dawei city also has a new airport that can better serve growing demand by locals and foreign tourists.
Among other things, Dawei people are getting more vocal in determining their future. Young participants in the “We Love Dawei” Festival said they welcomed the tourism industry. They pointed out the Myanmar education system is not aligned to demand in job markets, so the younger generation must move to neighbouring countries, especially Thailand, to look for a job. But Dawei is a resourceful city, packed with cultural richness and natural assets, such as beautiful beaches, islets and forests that are more than enough to enhance the tourism industry.
Villagers in Ka Lone Htar were at one with youth at the festival that developing tourism would be a better option for the country than pursuing the SEZ projects.
They said Ka Lone Htar will be most affected if SEZ projects are completed. Talaiya River, the bloodline for all villagers, will be blocked by a dam that will be used to supply fresh water to the SEZ’s industries. If built, the dam will submerge all the village and plantations. Therefore, villagers have opposed the SEZ projects from the beginning. They also have the abbot of Ka Lone Htar temple guiding their movement.
“In my opinion, tourism is the best choice for people in Ka Lone Htar. This village has a river, hot springs and abundant nature,” abbot Panyaratna told journalists after he finished a merit making ceremony involving Buddhists from Thailand and Ka Lone Htar village.
However, I felt regret when I stopped at Nabule beach in Dawei later, as I contemplated the fact this magnificent landscape would be transformed into a deep-sea port in the future. The fate of Dawei reminds me of the degraded state of beaches in our Rayong province in recent times. The Thaborseik village fish market that was once vibrant with fishermen selling their fresh catch of the day will be gone.
I had a chance to talk to Minister of Natural Resources and Reservation in the Tanintharyi region, Myin Mann, who participated in the festival. He insisted the regional government will promote and develop tourism along with SEZ projects. He also promised to encourage locals to charm tourists with their hospitality. He said the local government can kick off tourism development right away since it does not require a large budget compared to the industry sector.
Coincidentally, U Henry Van Thio, the vice-president of Myanmar, also visited Dawei to inspect the construction in the SEZ at the time the festival was held. He said the government will urge its Thai counterpart to build a road from Pu Nam Ron in Kanchanaburi province to link with the roads in Dawei, to complete the beginning phase of the SEZ projects. It seems Dawei is in a dilemma about which kind of progress they must choose: tourism or industry?
As investors make progress with SEZ projects, people in Dawei are struggling to gain attention from the public and the outside world. I hope the first civilian government of Myanmar will pause and listen more to their people.