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City on the Rise: Dawei

The Indian Ocean's Shenzhen

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The Indian Ocean's Shenzhen

Source:CW

The ambitious Dawei Special Economic Zone hopes to become Asia's biggest deep-sea port. Once it's completed, the distance between Bangkok and the Indian Ocean will be 90 percent shorter.

The Indian Ocean's Shenzhen

By Elaine Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 556 )

One year ago, this road did not exist.

It runs from Kanchanaburi Province in western Thailand, home to the famous Bridge on the River Kwai, to the region of Tanintharyi in remote southern Myanmar on the Andaman Sea. Only recently opened, the still muddy and bumpy road spans only just over 100 kilometers, but it takes all day to drive.

The poor quality of the road leads one to expect Dawei, the town at the end of the muddy trail, to be utterly desolate, but in fact it's a small bustling city of 140,000 people with a truly multicultural face. Clearly evident are remnants of Myanmar's colonial history interwoven with traces of the development spurred by the embrace of foreign investment following the opening of the country's economy.

Downtown Dawei is peppered with several colorful houses left behind from the British colonial era that are juxtaposed with rundown bungalows. Sounds of "ko, ko, ko" emanate from some of those shacks, as women operate simple machines that neatly remove the shells of cashew nuts, one of Dawei's main cash crops. Once de-shelled, the nuts are exported to China, South Korea and Israel.

Embracing Capitalism, Imported Goods

On one of the city's public buses, one sees the words "direct bus to Gero Onsen," revealing Myanmar's role as a major dumping ground for secondhand vehicles from the United States and especially Japan. Large numbers of decommissioned Japanese buses have been given new life on the streets of Dawei.

Myanmar is now opening wide its doors to development, embracing capitalism and imported goods.

A ban on mobile phone numbers has been lifted, and phone vendors have popped up all over just as bamboo shoots sprout up after a hearty rainfall. The best-selling models are low-cost units from Chinese brands ZTE and Huawei and old Nokia models, the iPhone nowhere to be seen. The candy and cookies shoeless children buy from neighborhood grocery stores are imported from Thailand.

People in the area know that once the rainy season ends in October, it will be time "to begin work," says one vendor, pointing to a construction site full of sand.

It was this site that Myanmar's government and neighborhood Thailand agreed three years ago to develop into the "Dawei Special Economic Zone."

Of Myanmar's three planned economic zones, the Dawei project is the biggest at 196 square kilometers, roughly 30 times the size of the Hsinchu Science Park. Once completed, it would give Bangkok an Indian Ocean outlet just 300 kilometers away, or about half a day by car.  

Linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans

One might question the appeal of a special economic zone located in such an isolated and economically underdeveloped area, but it is, in fact, its geography that has its developers optimistic of a bright future.

Right now, for goods produced in southwestern China to get to the Indian Ocean, they must take a long detour by road to Shanghai or Guangzhou and then be shipped through the narrow and potentially risky Strait of Malacca. In the future, however, goods can be shipped by road or sea to Bangkok and then transported to the port in Dawei.

Based on the economic zone's current plans, it will feature an industrial park, a power plant and an oil refinery. Clearly spelled out on the project's blueprint are the distances developers believe will make the zone viable. Bangkok to the Indian Ocean via the Strait of Malacca is 3,000 kilometers but only 300 kilometers via Dawei. Ho Chi Minh City to the Indian Ocean via the Strait of Malacca is over 2,000 kilometers but only 1,000 kilometers via Dawei.

The Dawei project, patterned after Shenzhen's development, aspires to become the Indian Ocean's Shenzhen. A completely undeveloped coast will be transformed into Asia's biggest deep sea port capable of handling 100 million tons of cargo a year.

"Within five years, you will definitely see a big change," says Somchet Thinaphong, managing director of Dawei Development Co., one of the companies involved in the project.

Huge Infrastructure Opportunities

The project's plentiful infrastructure opportunities have attracted astute businessmen with the force of a powerful magnet. The hotels built in downtown Dawei in recent years now cater mostly to business travelers, a clear indication of the project's allure.

One Scot who flew in from Dubai said his job was to take a one hour helicopter ride every day off the coast to help a Norwegian-Malaysian consortium develop a natural gas field.

Thai businessmen have been driving into the area from Kanchanaburi since the road from western Thailand opened last year.

"Every month, I bring at least one or two groups of Thais to Dawei to survey the site," says a driver for a Burmese transport company.

One year ago, all that existed outside downtown Dawei were forests of oak and cashew trees. Where a five-story building was once the tallest in the area, 10-story buildings are now being erected. The landscape will surely change further in the future, as the port of Dawei and multiple roadways connect Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members from east to west, from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

As Myanmar opens its economy to the world, Dawei intends to play its part, hoping to become a major hub in a new regional transportation network and emerge as the country's new leading harbor.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

Keywords:

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