Photo: Makeshift homes in Dagon Seikkan township under threat of demolition (Alex Bookbinder).
Tens of thousands of people living in informal settlements in wards 61, 67 and 93 of Rangoon’s Dagon Seikkan township are on-edge, after a deadline to leave their homes or face forced eviction came and went without incident last Sunday. If the forced removal is carried out, it will be the largest such event in Burmese history. Residents told DVB they believe local authorities will grant them reprieve until the school year ends in March.
Thousands of homes are set to be demolished to make way for the Aye Yar Wun and Yadanar housing complexes, part of the government’s plan to construct hundreds of thousands of low-cost housing units around the city. The housing estates are a venture between the Ministry of Construction and a consortium of 24 construction companies, many with close ties to the former military regime. Work on the first phase of the project is already underway.
Officials project the city’s population to balloon to 10 million by 2040.
At a proposed price of 20 million kyats (US$20,000) each, the new apartments will be out of reach for the site’s current inhabitants, who rank among the city’s most vulnerable and impoverished. Most of the area’s current residents have not been offered any sort of compensation, and with nowhere else to go, few have followed the directive to leave.
Daw Win Yi and her husband, U Than Lwin, moved to the area from Dedaye Township in the Irrawaddy Delta last May, following in the footsteps of friends and family. Today, hundreds of former Dedaye residents call the site home. “After Nargis, there were very few job opportunities to survive on,” said U Than Lwin, who now sells vegetables at a market in neighbouring Thaketa township. “Our son lived in Rangoon for a long time already, so we moved here and rented this house.”
A large proportion of the area’s inhabitants are survivors of Cyclone Nargis, which devasted a large swath of Irrawaddy Region and surrounding areas in 2008. “Before Nargis, there were only around 100 houses scattered around this area. Afterwards, there were a few more, but it was only after the 2010 elections that most people arrived,” Daw Myint Than, who has lived in the area for 14 years, told DVB. “People built houses here because it was the only place they could afford to live. We have nowhere else to go.”
Another set of residents came to the area due to a more recent spike in land prices that has driven thousands to Rangoon’s satellite towns. Few have regular employment, and most eke out an existence through temporary odd jobs. Although the settlement has been deemed illegal, the houses are well-ordered and numbered, and residents are registered with the local immigration authorities.
Residents buy, sell, and rent property following an informal ownership code, which the authorities do not recognise. Daw Win Yi and U Than Lwin rent their home for 20,000 kyats (US$20.25) per month, but their landlord – who lives in Thaketa – does not hold formal title to the property.
Local authorities “sold” thousands of plots to Nargis survivors and other arrivals at up to hundreds of dollars apiece, and residents are incensed that those same authorities are now refusing to offer them compensation.
Rumours have spread that 10-foot-by-60-foot plots will be made available to purchase for 200,000 kyats (US$203) further away from the city, but local residents have not been served with any official notice announcing such a program, or provided details of where these plots will be located.
Some long-term residents in parts of Ward 61 were offered 200,000 kyats’ compensation and 600-square-foot plots of land in remote Ward 138, but this offer has not been extended to the majority of those affected by the construction. Although most residents offered compensation have moved, 67 families have refused compensation and chosen to stay behind in hopes they will be allowed to move into the new complex.
“We received notice that we would have to move in April 2013. We protested five times to be allowed to buy cheap apartments by paying instalments,” said U Than Myint, who has lived on the site for seven years. “Finally, on January 14, the department of housing verbally promised that we would be allowed to buy apartments.”
But this is no guarantee U Than Myint and his family will be allowed to move into a new, improved home. He is too old to work, and is supported by his two sons, who lack steady jobs. “The authorities have said that when the projects are finished, they will select families that can afford to buy [apartments],” he explained.
Residents have filed repeated complaints about the eviction with U Myo Aung, their representative in Parliament. A member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, he won his seat in the 2012 by-elections that also saw Suu Kyi become a parliamentarian. Speaking to DVB by phone on Friday, he claimed he is still waiting for an official response to his constituents’ appeals.
“If we look at the projects the government is undertaking, they’re for the benefit of the cronies – not for ordinary poor people,” said Ko Tommy, an advocate on behalf of those threatened with eviction. While he does not live in the shantytown himself, he lives in the area and owns a shipping-container repair workshop along Dagon Seikkan’s waterfront. He will be leading a protest this Saturday in front of Rangoon’s city hall, appealing the authorities to not proceed with the eviction.
The pending eviction in Dagon Seikkan is part of a pattern of forced displacement which has become increasingly frequent in recent months. Last week, over 400 families were kicked out of Thameelay village near the proposed Hanthawaddy International Airport in Bago division; many of the displaced have taken up temporary residence in a nearby monastery.
In mid-January, some 4,000 homes were demolished by authorities near the Shwe Lin Ban industrial zone in Rangoon’s Hlaing Tharyar township. With nowhere else to go, many residents have subsequently rebuilt their homes, with no assurance they won’t be destroyed again.
With the clock ticking, those expecting eviction in Dagon Seikkan are worried about what is coming next. “If we are removed from this place, we cannot be sure about the future,” said Daw Myint Than. “We feel hopeless.”