Special Economic Zones and Land Dispossession in The Mekong Region

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Special economic zones (SEZs) have become a one-size-fit-all policy solution for governments eager to expand their industrial economy. Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam have all bought into the idea that SEZs will spur the development of a modern industrial sector that will form the basis of future economic growth. All countries have developed laws and policies that provide private investors with special privileges such as tax cuts and easy access to land for factories and other commercial enterprises. Whether special economic zones are really the engines of economic growth they are touted to be is still a matter for debate even among neoliberal economists. In the Mekong region, as elsewhere in the world, many SEZs have not met government’s own expectations in terms of attracting investments, developing a robust manufacturing sector, generating revenue, or creating positive linkages with the local and national economies, including employment opportunities. As a model for development, SEZs are even more problematic when social and environmental impacts are taken into account. As this report examines, SEZs in the Mekong region are often linked with human rights violations such as land dispossession, poor working conditions and environmental degradation. As SEZs have expanded in the region, so too have social conflicts and resistance from local residents who have fought to protect their land and resources.

This study would not have happened without the collaboration of a dedicated team of researchers and activists from across the Mekong region. We hope the study will provide a basis for further discussion and help build a platform for people who have had their land rights violated to voice their concerns.

Pornpana Kuaycharoen (Kung)
Founder/ Coordinator
Land Watch Thai

Manfred Hornung
Director (2013 - 2020)
Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southeast Asia Regional Office


This report was published by Land Watch Thai with the support of Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southeast Asia Regional Office in October 2020 with an updated edition, layout and Annex on Myanmar SEZs in May 2021.

Authors: Pornpana Kuaycharoen, Luntharima Longcharoen, Phurinat Chotiwan, Kamol Sukin, Lao Independent Researchers
Editor: Natalia Scurrah
Suggested citation: Kuaycharoen, P., Longcharoen, L., Chotiwan, P., Sukin, K., Lao Independent Researchers. (2020) Special Economic Zones and Land Dispossession in the Mekong Region. Bangkok: Land Watch Thai.
Design and Layout: Niphon Appakarn
Maps: Saraj Sindhuprama
Front cover photo: Ana Martin

Product details
Date of Publication
October 2020 / Updated May 2021
Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Southeast Asia
Number of Pages
Language of publication