Welcome soft breezes cool the night air as small waves lap the sands near Maung-Ma-Kan Beach, at Dawei, on the Adaman Sea, in the Taninthari region of southern Burma. The area, considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the region, is being enjoyed on this evening in February by many people. Some are sitting, some walking in the sand near the surf and some even painting the idyllic scene.
Local residents have always treasured their simple life at the edge of the sea. However, the tides of change have arrived on the shores at Dawei, as government and big business interests move to construct a modern deep-sea mega port there.
The nearby village of Myin-Gyi is located between the mountains and paddy fields in the east and the beach in the west. Sixty-three year old U Thein San walks the main road in the village, which twists and turns like a snake crawling on the beach sand. He seems visibly upset as he nears a warehouse storing cement, sand, stone and iron.
Just a few years ago, this spot was his paddy field. There were other paddy fields around the village a few years ago. Then, the air was filled with the songs from workers in paddy fields, sounds of flutes from cowboys and the sound of knocking-bamboo (locals call it as Kalae Dok-khuk) from Nipa Palm workers.
He fondly remembers planting rice nearby in a field now the location of a dormitory for construction workers, west of the warehouse.
Now, all he has is memories of that time. Tears fill his eyes.
The old man owned over 30 acres of paddy fields and over 10 acres of Nipa palm in the past. He has 5 children and 4 grandchildren. His wife already passed away. He lives in Byin Gi (Myin Gyi) Village, Nabulae village tract, in Kan Bauk Township in Taninthari Region, southern Burma.
"Army officials and village authorities confiscated my paddy and Nipa palm fields in January 2011, without giving any reason. They collected a number of eatable plants and other trees on my land. They also told me about compensation but they didn't tell me when they would pay compensation for my land. After that, they began road construction and port construction on my land," grandpa U Thein San said.
"My fields were an inheritance of my family. My family owned this land for a hundred years," grandpa continued. “I feel so upset.”
He explained, "During the election campaign in Kanbouk area in 2010, USDP officials (from the government controlled party) told us local people would benefit after the seaport construction finished. They also told us this area would develop very much. However, they didn't keep their promise. The current situation is totally different from what they had said during the election campaign," he explained.
Other local farmers say they haven't received compensation from the government either, even though government officials promised to give compensation when they confiscated land for the project.
"The current value of my land is tens of millions Kyat. However, I haven't got any compensation from authorities," U Thein San said.
He estimates over 20,000 acres of land in the Nabulae area have been confiscated by authorities. However, nobody has received compensation yet.
“We are farmers but we have no land left to work. What’s worse, authorities told us last August that the villagers from Htein Gyi, Muudu, and Myin Gyi would be relocated to Bwar Village. Over 1,000 acres of land around Bwar were already confiscated by authorities," the old man explained.
"I don't know exactly when we have to move. I would like to live in my village. I don't want to move to a new place," he said.
"Authorities put red-flag on the confiscated land plot. When I saw a red-flag on my land, I felt so upset and wanted to cry. We had no choice except to leave our village," he said.
Like U Thein San, Ko Yin Htwe also lost his family’s paddy fields.
Ko Yin Htwe (not his real name), from Myin Gyi Village, is 43 years old and the father of 3 children. He has to work in Thailand to support them.
"We had 5 acres of paddy fields and 5 acres of plantation crops when we were young. When we heard about plans to build the deep-seaport in our area, the situation had suddenly changed. In March 2011, authorities began to confiscate paddy fields and Nipa palm fields in Myin Gyi ," Ko Yin Htwe said.
"They hired daily-wage labors to work in port construction. They gave 4,000 Kyat (about $5 USD) per day as daily wage. It's good pay. They hired local workers but only a few people, close to authorities, could get jobs in port construction. So, I could not get a job," he said.
"Authorities confiscated our family land last July. They told us they would give us compensation but we haven't got any yet," he explained.
"I want to live with family in my village. However, I have left my wife and children behind in my village. I am so worried about my family all the time," Ko Yin Htwe said.
“We became jobless on our own land," grandpa U Thein San continued.
"Before they confiscated my land, we had work for the whole year. We grew rice in rainy season. We worked in Nipa Palm field in winter and summer. It's not comfortable for me to be a daily-wage laborer at my age."
He said the villagers don’t even know who to complain to and even though they didn’t want to lose their land, they can only hope they will receive some financial compensation.
However, some business men, close to authorities, say they have benefited from the project already.
"Many people from other regions and foreigners have come to work in our area, such as Thais, Japanese and people from central Burma. So, we have opportunities to get money from them by selling things that they need," a 57 year-old businessman, from Yay-phyu Township, in Taninsari Region, southern Burma, said.
"Now I have 3 houses. I have rented my houses to a foreign company. I earn $1,200 USD per month for my houses. I also opened a restaurant and sell Thai foods. There are over a hundred Thai people working in our area. They like to eat noodles and papaya salad,” he said.
"Other laborers also buy foods from my grocery shop. Their salary is 150,000-200,000 Kyat (US$ 183-243) per month. Some skilled laborers earn US$ 900-1,200 per month. So they can buy various foods," the business man explained.
"My family business earns 5-10 millions Kyat (US$ 6,000-12,000) per month. Like me, small business owners in this region can benefit from constructing these mega projects in our region."
The Burmese and Thai governments successfully signed the MOU for the Dawei mega project- including construction of the deep-seaport and development of an economic zone, in 2008.
The Thai-Italian Development Co. Ltd. and Burmese Port authorities will construct the port. The Dawei mega project will cost US$ 8.6 billion. The seaport area will stretch over 250 Sq-kilometer and include three big ship-piers to service fuel-tank carriers and giant cargo ships.
The project also includes plans for a fuel refinery, chemical factory, natural gas refinery, fuel and natural gas stores, a natural gas powered 600 megawatt power plant and a 4,000 megawatt coal generated power plant.
The special economic industrial zone will house many factories, manufacturing cars and tires, cement, computer parts, garments, cosmetics and pesticides.
However, other critics of the project caution that more will be lost than farmer’s fields.
"We will lose our cultural heritage," 28 year-old Ko Thet Aung, from the Dawei Development Association (DAA), said.
"Many foreigners and people from central Burma come to work in this area. We face a lot of social problems in our region. The sex business is growing here. I feel it's not good for us. In the long term, our culture and customs will disappear sooner or later," Ko Thet Aung said.
He also cited environmental concerns, such as deforestation, which he says may affect weather patterns.
"How we can be happy?” grandpa U Thein San asked.
“It is all so painful. What is the meaning of democracy for this country? They don't listen to our voice. They don't care our opinion. They do whatever they want," grandpa U Thein San said.
As the evening light fades behind him, the old man and his neighbors fear the sun is setting on the simple life by the sea they treasured for so long.
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