RANGOON — More than 100 homes were demolished in a corner of Rangoon’s Dagon Seikkan Township in the early hours of Friday morning, weeks after local authorities ordered residents to vacate on the grounds that they were illegal squatters.
The township has seen a number of similar forced evictions since early 2014, when plans to build a low-income housing complex, a project overseen by Burma’s Ministry of Construction, were revealed in an impromptu town meeting.
Residents of the township’s 168th ward described the demolition with flustered anxiety.
“When they destroyed my house, I felt unwell,” said Khin Mar Ye, a 66-year-old resident, in tears. She said that at around 2am, hundreds of police and more than 1,000 plainclothes hired hands assembled in the ward’s function hall.
Township police confirmed that officers and others were present at the eviction, but did not provide a numerical estimate or confirm that civilians had been paid to participate, though two other witnesses corroborated Khin Mar Ye’s account.
Witnesses said that around 4am, the crowd moved toward the homes in scores of large vehicles, including two backhoes. Police secured nearby roads while others announced via loudspeaker that the residents had 15 minutes to collect their belongings and leave the premises, witnesses said.
Two residents told The Irrawaddy that during the announcement, they were warned by police that they would face 3 months to 3 years in prison if they attempted to prevent the eviction by violence or other means.
Between 4 and 7am, locals said, about 140 homes were destroyed, each with an average of four household members. Crowds of hired men descended upon each house, they said, pushing down the thin bamboo walls and breaking them with hand-held tools.
The residents said materials were so badly damaged that nothing could be salvaged for rebuilding. Those who lost their houses scattered about the township, sheltering in the homes of friends or relatives.
Ward 168 is one of many vulnerable settlements in Dagon Seikkan slated for developments in the rapidly industrializing outskirts of Rangoon. The township is believed to be home to thousands of at risk people, with various claims of tenure. The municipal government views many of the township’s residents as illegal squatters.
While some claim hereditary rights to the land, which is located along the bank of the Bago River, other settlers trickled into the area over the course of the last decade, claiming that they had unwittingly purchased plots from local authorities who had no right to deal the property.
The Irrawaddy visited Dagon Seikkan as recently as Jan. 26, finding several acres of cleared riverside property occupied by locals eager to tell the stories of how they’d been similarly evicted from the township’s 67th ward in late May, 2014.
Some of the displaced accepted relocation deals while others rebuilt modest thatch-roofed huts in other parts of the township, where they live in anxiety over another eviction. Those who rebuilt, sheltering in what they refer to as “a refugee camp,” claimed that they were offered either no compensation or inadequate payment for their losses.
Others who lived in various wards told The Irrawaddy that though they had not been offered compensation, they had received as many as three eviction notices, ordering them to move before Jan. 16. One woman said that she and her family “haven’t slept for a week” because they feared a late-night raid.
“I was afraid they would come,” said Khin Mar Ye, speaking to The Irrawaddy on Friday morning after watching her house collapse, “but I didn’t expect that they would destroy my house with such rude behavior. I was surprised.”
She and several of her neighbors said that they will try to rebuild nearby.
“I will rebuild my home,” she said, “and I will live there because I have nowhere to go.”