The Special Economic Zones of the Greater Mekong Subregion: Land Ownership and Social Transformation

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This is the abstract for the paper I will be presenting for the Land Politics Conference in Chiang Mai in June (http://www.tni.org/article/land-grabbing-perspectives-east-and-southeast-asia).

The Special Economic Zones of the Greater Mekong Subregion: Land Ownership and Social Transformation

Abstract

Special economic zones (SEZs) are geographical areas bounded in space and time that are aimed at encouraging inward investment by privileging capital above labour and above the general legal system. In the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMSR), which consists of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Yunnan Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Zone of China, SEZs have been used extensively and with considerable success according to quantitative measures. In general, these measures have promoted the Factory Asia paradigm of low labour cost competitiveness in import-substituting, export-oriented manufacturing. This is a paradigm that is limited in time and ends with the effect known as the Middle Income Trap, which now affects Thailand and can only really be exited by qualitative change in economy and society to promote innovation and creativity. In other parts of the GMSR, states have not progressed so far along this trajectory and, in Laos and Myanmar, are at the very early stages of their journeys. In the majority of cases, SEZs are built with public sector support and, in particular, with assistance in obtaining land. Often, as in the case of Dawei SEZ in Myanmar, this has involved the forcible relocation of the villagers from an area the size of Singapore. At least some of the dispossessed villagers have mounted armed resistance to this relocation and halted construction. This may be seen as a form of creative destruction during the process of what Polanyi called the great transformation. Social relations and social capital are among the assets that are transformed into market relations as land itself is redefined and reconfigured as commercially important space. This paper explores the variety of SEZs in the GMSR and the way they interact with the people who once lived on or near the land they now occupy. Remedial social policy options are explored.

Keywords: Greater Mekong Subregion, land, special economic zone, transformation

John Walsh, School of Management, Shinawatra University

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