Cover: "The Project May Serve the Nation — But What About Us, Who Live Here?"

"The Project May Serve the Nation — But What About Us, Who Live Here?"

Villagers' Views of the Dawei Special Economic Zone, an Internationally Funded Infrastructure Project in Myanmar

Published Jun 4, 2019

by Jonah Blank, Shira Efron, Katya Migacheva


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Research Questions

  1. What are the local community members' perceptions of foreign infrastructure investment and its impact in Myanmar?
  2. What can project managers and the government of Myanmar do to improve the relationship with the communities near infrastructure and development projects?

Myanmar is a country in the midst of a historic transformation, including the rapid move toward a market economy and many planned infrastructure and development projects that seek to connect the country to its neighbors. To gain a better understanding of how foreign infrastructure investment in Myanmar may affect local communities, RAND researchers conducted a survey of 250 residents of communities near one such project — the Dawei Special Economic Zone (DSEZ). The DSEZ is intended to provide economic benefits to Myanmar in general and specifically to the Dawei region. A portion of area inhabitants, however, viewed the project as bringing more harm than good. They expressed concerns about, for example, the prospect of relocating residents, unfair compensation for land, and environmental impacts. But the problems of the project were largely seen as solvable: Fewer than one-tenth of respondents wanted to terminate the DSEZ project, and an overwhelming majority favored solutions that are amenable to negotiation. As Myanmar works to develop its infrastructure, it is in the ultimate interest of the central and regional governments to partner more effectively with local communities. To ensure the success of plans like the DSEZ, the people who are forced to alter their lives and livelihoods to accommodate such efforts must be — and must feel themselves to be — true beneficiaries of these projects.

Key Findings

Respondents saw the Dawei project as causing more harm than good but preferred to fix its problems rather than terminate it

  • A substantial majority of respondents were largely uninformed about the DSEZ project and did not see it as having much impact on their lives. To the extent that they saw it as having an impact, respondents reported more negative than positive observations and expectations.
  • Most respondents saw outsiders (particularly foreigners) as the most likely beneficiaries of the DSEZ — and themselves as the parties most likely to suffer its ill effects.
  • Respondents saw the DSEZ project's problems as solvable: Fewer than 9 percent wanted to terminate the DSEZ, and an overwhelming majority favored solutions (including higher compensation for confiscated land, hiring of more locals, and increased consultation) that are amenable to negotiation.
  • Respondents viewed the government of Myanmar as the party responsible for the success or failure of the DSEZ — and for implementing any recommendations from the community.
  • Included among the survey respondents' suggestions were that relocation should be voluntary rather than forced, with fair compensation for any land appropriated; local workers should be offered jobs ahead of applicants from outside the communities; and any negative impact on the health, safety, or cultural integrity of the community should be discussed in advance with local residents, with a view toward crafting less-disruptive solutions.


  • Myanmar's government should ensure that the developers establish clear avenues for communication and cooperation with the local communities. This may be easier said than done considering Myanmar's culture and history.
  • If the central government decides to embark on a course of grassroots engagement, it will have to better inform the villagers about the project's goals, its timetables, and its potential impacts on local communities.
  • The meaningful involvement of the local community is fundamentally important for any stable and lasting solution. Although consultations and a firm commitment to transparency may entail additional challenges, they will also ensure that the surrounding communities are more likely to act as supporters of DSEZ investments and are willing to withstand some of the unanticipated problems and contribute to the project's success.

Research conducted by

This project is a RAND Venture. Funding was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. The research was conducted by the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy (CAPP) within International Programs.

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