INDUSTRIAL BELT TAKES SHAPE AROUND CAPITAL

Yangon: B.J. Lee: The Nation (Bangkok), January 17, 1997

 

"We are going to be surrounded by smoke stacks," say a Rangoon resident.  On a map of the greater Rangoon area, the source draws circles around five industrial zones being set up in a ring around the outskirts of Rangoon. "I've seen foreign news about a place called Death Valley, where people are choked by the factories surrounding their city. Maybe this is what Rangoon will become in the future.

 

Govenrment official often herald the five industrial parks as being the foundation of Burma's drive to become the next economic tiger of Asia.  But critics, such as the Rangoon resident who is involved in joint ventures and has visited all five sites, warn of impending problems of population and over Asian boomtowns. And sources say that villagers are already being forcibly relocated off prize farmland to make way for bulldozers and engineers.

 

The largest of the five zones is the Sinmardev industrial zone, 18 kilometers outside of RangoonSinmardev is short for Singapore-Myanmar-development. In an agreement last year, the Burmese govenrment leased the 12-sq-kilometers land site wholesale to Sinmardev for a period of 50 years. Sources say construction managers are currently registering local inhabitants in order to move them off  the site. The other zone reserved exclusively for foreign investors has been leased to Mitsui corporation of Japan.  The govenrment reportedly agreed to lease the land to Mitsui without demanding any percentage of income from the site.

 

The govenrment says the zones will bring hundreds of thousands of jobs to Burma.  But critics say the companies sweet-talked the govenrment into selling them land around Rangoon for industrial parks.  "They tell the govenrment that they will bring jobs and money into Myanmar," says one critic who has visited the sites. "Of course, what the companies really want is cheap labour and relaxed environmental controls. But the government believes them, and money helps do the talking."

 

Three other zones are set aside for locally-owned factories.  Factories at the 1,700-hectare Hlaing Thar Yar industrial zone, 11 kilometers northwest of Rangoon, are already producing plastic sacks, paper, paint, foam rubbers, as well as cleaning beans for export. The Shwepyitha industrial zone, 18 kilometers north of Rangoon, is expected to have 200 factories upon completion making such products as wood, drinking water and liquor.  One factory, which kicked into gear last year, takes raw materials imported from firms in Europe, Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia, and then produces garments for export to The Netherlands. "Factories like this aren't using local raw materials or even selling to the local market. The only reason they set up here to use cheap local labour," says the critic. Factories at a third zone, in South Dagon, a kilometers northeast of downtown, use raw materials from Japan and Malaysia to make plastic sacks for export.

 

Sources say the industrial zones are creating another headache: forced relocations of villagers. The source says that farmers have been forced to give up their prized land in Mingaladon north of Rangoon to make way for Mitsui's industrial park. "There is no negotiation between the farmers and the government. The govenrment simply puts up a sign saying, 'Everybody must move by this date.'  Everybody must obey it or else. Villages are silently angry but they don't dare protest." Adds another local resident, explaining the public mentality about reallocations, "We have to obey the king. When the king says move, we have to move."

 

"They are losing a paradise," says the source who says the had spoken with many relocated villagers. "Having farmland close to the markets of Rangoon, they were among the luckiest people in the country. Now their luck has changed." But the source says that in some cases, farmers don't move. "I've seen cases where farmers will stand in front of their homes while bulldozers start moving in on them. When they see the bulldozers, they quickly pack up their things and go, stunned that they actually have to move."

 

Villagers don't really understand what an industrial park is," explains the source. "Many of them only know farming, so they are losing mot only their land but their way of life. Others take money from the govenrment and smaller plots of land to build new homes in other parts of the city. They have to find new jobs. Where? At the industrial park."

 

Other Rangoon residents say that the industrial parks are increasing the influx of villagers coming into Rangoon. The relocations are also creating public resentment against the foreign  investors. "Employees of foreign investors such as Mitsui don't even realise this.  Because news can't be reported in the local press, the official seem unaware

of the relocations and the public distrust it's causing toward them," said the source.

 

Foreign investors, afraid of losing their deals and their status inside the country, are reluctant to discuss politically sensitive matters on the record.  Privately, many investors say they hold firm to the belief that industrial zones are good for the economic future of the country. They also argue that building industrial parks outside the capital is a better alternative to allowing factories to set up downtown and in residential areas.