Less than an hour south of Rangoon, Burma’s bustling commercial capital, Aye Khin Win sits cross-legged in the middle his small, makeshift house on the edge of a vast construction site. Sipping a cup of traditional tea, the 29-year-old farmer is asking how he and hundreds of neighbours have ended up impoverished and without hope in the midst of his country’s historic economic transformation.
Mr Win grew up just a few kilometres from where he is sitting. But last year he was evicted in the name of development, resettled after his family’s plot became prime real estate and part of a flagship project part-financed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) that coordinates developmental projects for the Japanese government. The Thilawa Special Economic Zone, which has taken over the land Mr Win and his neighbours used to farm, has been billed as a key pillar of the country “big bang” economic transformation and a project that could create tens of thousands of jobs. Dozens of foreign corporations have already signed up to open factories here.
But for Mr Win it has been nothing short of a disaster. “All we have ever done is farming. And now we have no land,” he says. “We have no hope, only despair.”
The Burmese government has offered the farmers compensation for the loss of their land, but many are still unclear how much, and whether it will be enough.
“I can’t even sleep at night, because of the stress,” adds his neighbour, Daw Win. The 56-year-old said she used to grow fruits and raise livestock, but now lives “day to day, worrying about meals. I have a lot of stress.”
The villagers’ plight is not unique in Burma, where a clamour to reintegrate the country into the global economy has created what some call a “two-speed” transformation. While there has been a historic rush by foreign investors to set up shop in the country, increasingly in cooperation with aid agencies and NGOs, there is growing concern that Burma’s economic metamorphosis has far outpaced its transition to democracy. Local activists say it is difficult to oppose the economic programme in any respect, as many remain fearful of the government.
The attraction of Burma for big business is not hard to understand. The country, one of south-east Asia’s poorest, is the ultimate “frontier market”. It sits between India and China, the world’s two most populous countries, and is rich in natural resources such as oil and gas, as well as precious stones such as jade.
“Everyone wants to have an influence and get in, in terms of business. Whether it’s China or the UK or the US, I think everybody is looking at opportunities,” says Keith Win, founder of the Myanmar-British Business Association, set up to help British firms move into the country. Foreign investment in Burma reportedly rose to a record high in 2014-2015, reaching $8bn (£5.47bn).
The Burmese government, for its part, is rushing through dozens of new laws and programmes to make the country more “attractive” to foreign capital. Aid money and agencies have also flooded in, announcing enormous spending plans. But in a report last month, Global Witness warned that new investment flows, in the context of a repressive political system, risk “fuelling human- rights abuses”.
One local aid worker, who is supporting the farmers displaced by the new Thilawa economic zone but did not want to be named, said there is a sense of fear.
“The villagers feel they cannot go against the government,” he said.
Some are concerned, too, about the ideology guiding the “transformation”. In addition to supporting the Burmese government’s market-based reforms, the World Bank’s private-sector arm has invested millions in luxury real-estate and hotel projects.
One investment is in the Shangri-La, a five-star hotel in downtown Yangon, where the buffet costs $40, more than the average Burmese citizen will earn in a week.
Like the farmers at Thilawa, the Shangri-La’s expansion is also displacing people who work in the area. One woman, a street hawker who also did not want to be named, said she had sold coffee in this spot for seven years. “I can make a living here and support my family. But I will have to move when the construction is over,” she said. “I don’t have any idea of where to go.”
When questioned, the World Bank says such investment is vital for Burma. “It’s not about poverty eradication, it’s about creating jobs, it’s about shared prosperity,” said Vikram Kumar, the bank’s top investment official in the country.
Back at Thilawa, U Mya Hlaing believes his home will soon be bulldozed. The 69-year-old insists he is not against the Thilawa project, but says that too many locals are suffering as a result of it.
“It’s true that it is good for the development of the country,” he said, “but the people are suffering.”