Observations and Perspectives: Dawei Collaborative City Exchange Trip

 Blog posts from UCRSEA Staff
October 25-28, 2016

Some of the productive discussions during the trip occurred over informal meetings.
Discussion over a group dinner in Dawei.

Jonathan de Luca, UCRSEA Intern

With a population of just under 150,000, Dawei City is the regional centre and capital of the Tanintharyi region, Myanmar. With the planning of a large Special Economic Zone spanning almost 200 square kilometres, it is expected to take on an important role in the ASEAN region. The port zone and industrial activities are expected to be a major component of the ASEAN Economic Community’s corridor that includes Vietnam, Lao PDR, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar. Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are areas where certain industrial activities are preferentially developed, and usually involve policies that encourage industrialization, such as tax breaks on import of industrial inputs, state-subsidized infrastructure development and sometimes labour policies that are more favourable to employers.

The expected rapid economic growth as a result of Dawei’s key place in the region is an opportune time to ensure that notions of resilience be built into development mechanisms. It is for this reason the Urban Climate Resilience in Southeast Asia (UCRSEA) Partnership has chosen Dawei as a study city. As part of the project, an exchange trip was organized on October 25-28, 2016 to this city. On this trip, partners from Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam came together to learn about the Dawei Special Economic Zone (DSEZ).

UCRSEA partners engaged with representatives from citizen’s groups, developers, local officials and academics, as well as villagers living within the DSEZ. Through meetings and interactions, they were able to get a full picture of the development of the economic zone.

The group also gained a better understanding of the different components of the DSEZ as well as meeting all the stakeholders involved. One major learning of the visit was the importance of transparency and communication with community stakeholders. In speaking with the various groups, it was evident that clear and transparent dialogue must be the foundation on which the DSEZ is based. For instance, developers believed they were fulfilling their legal obligations by performing environmental impact assessments, creating communication materials and opening an information centre on-site. Despite these efforts, villagers living within the DSEZ felt that they had not been consulted and did not understand what the positive gains would be. They are waiting to find out how it will affect their lives, if they are not among those who have already been affected by the changes in the irrigation system or by the development of quarries to feed the needed construction inputs.

“The government can get profits and businessmen can get profits,” said a local activist. “But on the other hand, on the ground, our people are not ready so we are really afraid about this, about human rights abuse, land grabbing, seed grabbing. We need to find a different way to solve this.”

Many of the villagers mentioned that they would not necessarily oppose the DSEZ if it improved their quality of life. However, the project in its current iteration does not benefit them, so they are against it. The determination of the villagers and the civil society organizations supporting them to keep fighting for transparency and the protection of their human rights is an inspiring lesson that the members of the UCRSEA Partnership can learn from.

UCRSEA plans to continue with visits to other focus cities through the Collaborative City Exchange trips. It hopes to learn more from local multi-stakeholders and deepen its understanding of the complex issues facing the region as a whole to create solutions that will work best for the Greater Mekong Sub-Region.

Jasmine An, UCRSEA Communications and Research Associate

Thai and Laotian country collaborators getting to know one another
Thai and Laotian country collaborators getting to know one another.

Since joining the UCRSEA team, one of my favorite parts of the job is the opportunity to travel within the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) and meet professors, researchers and students from many countries who are also interested in understanding urbanization and climate change. This October, I got to join a group of UCRSEA team members in the inaugural Collaborative City Exchange trips to Dawei, Myanmar.

The Collaborative City Exchange trips are built into the UCRSEA project to provide partners an opportunity to network and strengthen their knowledge about the various issues of urbanization, regionalization and climate change affecting the GMS. Once a year, UCRSEA collaborators, partner organization representatives and other experts gather in a different focus city to learn from each other and from local multi-stakeholders on its specific challenges and issues.

Despite the complex nature of urbanization, many cities across Southeast Asia are facing similar challenges related to rapid development and the changing climate, among them, poor governance leading to ineffective management, air, water and solid waste pollution, and inability to cope with population growth. These similarities and the unique factors in each country and city provided backdrops for very productive discussions and sharing of knowledge and lessons learned among participants from different countries. Aside from learning from the multi-stakeholders of Dawei (knowledge that will be discussed more in depth in a future blog post), this trip also provided participants with a valuable opportunity to learn from each other as they shared stories of successes and challenges in their own work.

During a Shared Learning Dialogue on the first day we arrived in Dawei, team members met with a group of local researchers, university lecturers and concerned citizens to talk about the effects of the Dawei Special Economic Zone (DSEZ) that is currently under construction about an hour’s drive from the city. As we talked about the DSEZ, the local multi-stakeholders were able to speak to the concrete needs of their communities, and specific local effects of the construction, such as the displacement of local communities, and the need for greater transparency and communication from the developers. To supplement this information, UCRSEA team members discussed the effects of the project and its regional history. In particular, my discussion group, which included professors from Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar, was able to draw historical patterns tracking the displacement of dirty industry from Japan to Cambodia to Thailand and finally to Myanmar. This regional information, along with the specific local information, allowed us to see a more complete picture of the DSEZ’s potential impacts.

Group dinner on the first night in Yangon.
Group dinner on the first night in Yangon.

However, I found some of the most valuable moments of learning occurred at unexpected times outside of the workshops and meetings. During dinner on the first night, I compared the political and economic development of various Asian countries with Professor Naret Heng from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. While waiting in the Yangon domestic airport for our delayed flight to Dawei, I struck up a conversation with Thanousorn Vongpraseuth, a researcher from the National University of Laos, about comparing traffic patterns to water flow and our shared interest in sustainable architecture. And during the hour-long van ride from Dawei city to the DSEZ, I chatted with our local translator about the university system in Dawei and her hopes to do translation work for civil society organizations in the future.

For me, these informal sharing sessions and exchanges were an important part of the trip. Gathering such a collection of international experts together was a great opportunity for learning and regional exchange. In future Collaborative City Exchange trips, I look forward to deeper opportunities for interdisciplinary analysis and engagement through workshops and Shared Learning Dialogues. However, we should also remember to leave room for the informal, unstructured dialogues and spontaneous moments of learning that can teach us so much more.

More photos of the trip can be found here.