Japanese lawmaker Michihiro Ishibashi, in blue, speaks with a translator while visiting a relocation site for residents displaced by the Thilawa Special Economic Zone. (Photo: Thit Nay Moe / The Irrawaddy)
After being forced off their land, displaced residents continue to request a meeting with the Japanese backers of the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Rangoon Division. A Japanese lawmaker, Michihiro Ishibashi, recently visited the relocation site where dozens of families are now living after being kicked out of their homes for Phase 1 of the SEZ development. The Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker is director of a committee in the Japanese legislature that discusses official development assistance to foreign countries, including Burma. He spoke with The Irrawaddy about his impressions of the Thilawa SEZ.
Question: Why did you visit Thilawa?
Answer: The Japanese people are offering development assistance to the people of Myanmar for social and economic development. As members of parliament, we need to make sure that our assistance is used properly and implemented for the benefit of the people.
The Thilawa development is a major form of our assistance to the Myanmar [Burmese] government. As the project continues, I understand that there have been issues of residents being moved to new locations. There were some complaints and concerns raised by people who are affected by the project. I wanted to come and see, to talk to the people who are affected about the problems and the real situation on the ground.
Q: What do you think about the situation, based on your visit?
A: There has been a lack of proper communication between those who have been affected by the project and probably the government of Myanmar, which is responsible for the project, and also with the Japanese government—JICA (the Japan International Cooperation Agency)—which is responsible for providing assistance to the government of Myanmar. As a result, they [affected residents] haven’t been able to raise their voices, their concerns. That’s why they are still struggling with their livelihoods after being relocated. I understand consultations [with families] on 2,000 hectares of land are starting, and we need to make sure they are done properly.
I am really worried about the conditions here as rainy season approaches—I can see that rainy season is going to be a big problem. The water supply, the wells, have not been developed properly. That’s one concern. Another is schooling for the kids. I didn’t realize before today that some of the kids had to give up schooling last semester because their old schools were too far away and the schools nearby did not accept them. I understand the next school year is starting in June, and we need to make sure those kids are able to go to school. I will try to demand that JICA holds an immediate meeting with the people here to discuss these issues, including water, water drainage and schooling for the kids.
Q: JICA has not responded to requests by local people for a meeting. What do you think of that?
A: It is surprising that they have not responded. They [residents] have written letters to JICA, they have officially requested a meeting with JICA, but these requests have not been met so far. I need to see why they [JICA] did not respond to the letters, did not respond to the request for a meeting. Then I need to encourage and urge them to do that immediately, and to respond to the letter in a proper manner. As soon as I go back to Japan, I will talk to JICA headquarters to see why they did not respond to the letters. Hopefully they can respond properly as soon as possible.
Q: As a lawmaker, why do you emphasize that Japanese investment in Burma must be done properly?
A: With any project, whether big or small, it’s important to ensure that all stakeholders, including people affected by the project either positively or negatively, are involved in the process. Starting from the planning stage, they should be informed, they should be invited to consultations. They should be fully aware and involved in the project. Whatever the project is, it should benefit the people of Myanmar—that’s something we should ensure.