This week, recently displaced villagers from the Thilawa Special Economic Zone near Yangon, Myanmar, did something that they were unable to do the first time the government confiscated their land nearly twenty years ago: they complained.  Surrounded by a flurry of reporters, village representatives traveled to Tokyo to complain to JICA, the Japanese government agency financing the Myanmar Government’s plans for Thilawa, requesting due process, better compensation, and a suspension of the project unless the current problems are adequately addressed.

The story begins in 1997, when the Burmese military regime informed farmers in the Thilawa area that their land was being confiscated for an industrial development project, in a move that violated national land laws at the time.  Some families were paid a pittance for their land while others received nothing at all.  Under the prevailing political conditions, however, there was no space to protest.

In the end, most of the land was never used for the planned development, and many community members simply remained on the land, which they were eventually told had returned to their possession.  Then, last year, the farmers of Thilawa discovered that they faced displacement yet again; this time, they would be resettled to make way for a Japanese-funded Special Economic Zone where foreign companies would open factories producing goods for export.  JICA owns 10% of the project; the remainder is controlled by three Japanese manufacturing giants – Mitsubishi, Marubeni, and Sumitomo – the Myanmar Government, and nine Myanmar companies.

Villagers from Thilawa arriving at JICAVillagers from Thilawa arriving at JICA

As they detail in their Objection, the Thilawa farmers have suffered intimidation, indignity, and deprivation over the past year.  Many of them were pressured into signing relocation agreements they didn’t understand, under the threat that their homes and possessions would be destroyed.  At one point, they were told to abandon their homes and move to a relocation area that was nothing but a scrub-covered, half-flooded, muddy field; only the last minute intervention of civil society organizations won them a one-month reprieve.  During that month, the local government hastily built cramped homes at the relocation site, where hundreds of displaced residents are now living without access to farmland or adequate quantities of reliable, safe drinking water. 

Villagers from Thilawa speaking at a press conference at the House of Councillors' Building in TokyoVillagers from Thilawa speaking at a press conference at the House of Councillors' Building in Tokyo

Almost 400 persons have already been displaced to make way for the project, and a few thousand more face resettlement in the coming year.  Families have been deprived of their land-based livelihoods and crammed into an over-crowded resettlement site under deplorable conditions. Many have already exhausted the meager and arbitrarily determined amounts that the government has allocated to them as compensation, and few have any prospect of work to sustain their families.  But this time, things have changed; the villagers do not have to take the government’s violation of their rights (not to mention JICA’s social and environmental guidelines) lying down.

Community members have taken a range of steps to seek a remedy for the abuses they have suffered, including writing letters, cataloguing their injuries and presenting a “book of grievances” to the local government, and speaking with the media.  Last month, a representative of the Japanese Parliament visited the site and publicly criticized JICA for failing to ensure basic living standards.  The villagers’ efforts have culminated in this week’s trip to Japan and the submission of a formal Objection to JICA, which had largely ignored their requests for meetings and assistance thus far.

Villagers from Thilawa delivering objections to JICAVillagers from Thilawa delivering objections to JICA

It’s gratifying and exciting to see the Thilawa villagers taking advantage of the increased space for dissent in Myanmar to stand up for their rights, using methods that would not have been available just three years ago.  Sure, some things remain depressingly static – widespread land-grabbing, intimidation of communities, and callous treatment of Myanmar’s powerless continue unabated.  And the eviction and impoverishment of a few thousand villagers may not be enough to put off investors, as evidenced by the recent announcement that U.S. manufacturer Ball Corp. will open an aluminum can factory at Thilawa, which came just days after the villagers presented their Objection.  But just maybe, Myanmar’s opening means that communities have a fighting chance to protect themselves through public advocacy and institutional channels like those that the resettled villagers of Thilawa have just begun to engage.