From the Field, Carli Melo (Graduate Student)

One afternoon, over the patter of the monsoon rains, one of my colleagues interjected a conversation on ‘KL’ – an abbreviation for Kuala Lumpur – to exclaim, “We also have short forms for people from other countries and we have a short form for ourselves. We call ourselves ‘The Golden People’ because we come from ‘The Golden Land.’”

Looking down on the land of Myanmar (Burma) you can see the spires of thousands of pagodas and Buddhist temples sheathed with gold. The beauty of Myanmar’s landscape captivates tourists and locals alike and contrasts the country’s history of torment and fear.


Shwedagon Pagoda, one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites, taken from the shores of Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon, Myanmar. Photograph by C. Melo

Over the course of the past few weeks the word ‘Myanmar’ or ‘Burma’ was fixed in international headlines highlighting the nation’s highly anticipated general elections. From 1962 until 2011, Myanmar was formally governed by an oppressive military dictatorship guilty of gross human rights abuses and, as a result, subject to international sanctions. In 2011, following a general election condemned as fraudulent by the United Nations and many Western countries, the military junta officially dissolved and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) assumed power. On 8 November 2015, citizens took to the polls once again and the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and daughter of Myanmar’s national hero Aung Sun, won a landslide victory.

The dissolution of international sanctions and recent political and economic reforms spurring greater foreign direct investment, economic growth and regionalization are intensifying urbanization processes throughout the country. As an intern for the Urban Climate Resilience in Southeast Asia (UCRSEA) Partnership based out of Mercy Corps’ Yangon office, I spent May to August attempting to unravel these processes and understand climate-related vulnerabilities in relation to the city of Dawei.

Tenasserim mountain range taken from Dawei University in Tanintharyi Region, Myanmar. Photograph by C. Melo

The UCRSEA Partnership was established to address vulnerabilities to climate change in urbanizing areas of Southeast Asia with the objective of enhancing resilience and economic and social well-being. One of the project’s outputs is a vulnerability assessment (VA) of rapidly urbanizing secondary cities across the region. Dawei, the capital of the Tanintharyi Region in the south of Myanmar, was selected based on the prevalence of climate issues, its projected rapid urban growth, increasing regional significance, and relative accessibility to researchers.

As a Master’s student in urban planning with a background in international development studies, I was chosen to conduct a context analysis of Dawei to help shape the methodology of a future VA. This analysis involved a concerted attempt to shed light on the inter-connected social, economic and ecological systems that are influencing urban vulnerabilities. While based in Yangon, I combed databases for contact information and arranged meetings with organizations and consultants with expertise in the fields of disaster risk reduction, local governance, land management and urban development or operating in Dawei District.

In August, I arrived in Dawei on a Myanmar National Airways flight in the company of a retired Burmese professor and UCRSEA collaborator. According to the 2014 Myanmar Population and Housing Census for Tanintharyi Region, Dawei Township has an urban population of 80,117. Dawei city rests in the foothills of the Tenasserim mountain range that forms a natural barrier between Thailand and Myanmar. The area surrounding the urban centre is rife with rubber and palm oil plantations, fisheries and agricultural lands. A notable driver of urbanization processes in the area and a heated topic of conversation is the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ).

The Dawei SEZ project was launched in 2008 by the governments of Myanmar and Thailand. The project is still in the initial phase of development, due to a few hiccups with funding, but the completed SEZ will include a multi-billion-dollar deep-sea port, industrial estate an oil and gas pipeline, road and railway connecting Dawei to Bangkok, Thailand. Residents of Dawei described how Thailand’s “cleaning up” of their industrial sector has resulted in “dirty industries” being shuffled across the border. Based on my conversations with community-based organizations and residents, it was apparent that the development has already had significant negative impacts on the surrounding people and land.

Land is a critical asset for the people of Dawei as the majority of people rely on fishing and farming as their primary source of livelihood. A study conducted by the Dawei Development Association (DDA), a coalition of civil society organizations in the area, found that 71 per cent of the 1,583 households surveyed expect to lose all or some of their land to the SEZ. The 2014 report states that “many people have already lost land either directly, by confiscation, or indirectly, as their lands are rendered unusable as a result of landslides and water channel blockages due to DSEZ project operations.”[1] Land is also being grabbed by unscrupulous business “cronies” speculating an increase in price.

Site for the Dawei Special Economic Zone in Launglon Township. Photograph by C. Melo

These stories of losses in livelihood strategies and increased vulnerabilities are unfortunately not unique to Dawei or Myanmar. It is hoped that subsequent researchers can build on the information that was gathered and the personal connections that were forged to conduct a thorough vulnerability assessment and begin to think about ways to address power imbalances perpetuated by poor governance mechanisms and global capitalism.

Although my internship has concluded and I am bound to a library chair at the University of Toronto for the remainder of my degree, I am continuing to explore the impacts, drivers and management of urbanization processes in Dawei, Myanmar. I believe that in order to design effective strategies to mitigate the negative social and environmental impacts of urban development and to uphold people’s right to access and control their cities, it is necessary to first understand the inter-connected, multi-scale processes driving urbanization.

Carli Melo is a Master’s candidate in Planning at the University of Toronto. From May to August 2015, she conducted a vulnerability assessment in a secondary city of Myanmar as a UCRSEA research intern under the supervision of Nilan Fernando (MercyCorps Myanmar) and UCRSEA Co-Director Amrita Daniere (University of Toronto).

A PDF of Carli’s article can be accessed here.

[1] Dawei Development Association. (2014). Voices from the Ground: Concerns Over the Dawei Special Economic Zone and Related Projects. Retrieved from