MANDALAY — More than a fortnight after being evicted from the Irrawaddy River foreshore, hundreds of people living around Mandalay’s Gaw Wein jetty are struggling to rebuild their small bamboo huts, bulldozed by municipal authorities.
In preparation for a royal visit from Norwegian King Harald and Queen Sonja on Dec. 4, the Mandalay City Development Committee (MCDC) served eviction notices to the motley community of day laborers and their families living in huts on the riverbank.
Now permitted to return, squatters around the jetty have begun the daunting task of attempting to rebuild the homes knocked down by the MCDC.
“Only some bamboo posts and plastic sheets were left behind. The bamboo curtains which we used for the walls were destroyed,” said Sein Hla Yee, 50, as she helped her son fashion an old plastic sheet into a makeshift roof for their new, improvised home.
Municipal authorities banned ships and boats from embarking from the jetty for several days before and after the royal visit. Among those displaced from Gaw Wein, those whose livelihoods depend on port labor have been affected the most.
“We laborers are paid daily and our earnings depend on the jetty,” Sein Hla Yee said. “When the ships are not allowed to embark or to unload goods, our pockets are empty—so are our rice pots and our stomachs.”
Although Sein Hla Yee and the 200 or so families in her neighborhood are now moving back to where their homes used to stand, many are still without shelter and have nothing left save a few personal belongings.
“My whole hut was destroyed and I have no money to build a new one,” said Maung Aye, a father of four and port laborer, as he waited to carry cement bags onto a barge docked at the jetty. “We are still trying to save some money to build a new home. All of our money was spent during the King’s visit. These days, there are not many jobs to do and we earn only a little.”
Like Maung Aye, most of the Gaw Wein squatters are the general laborers and porters who earn on average around 3000 kyats ($US3) per day by loading and unloading port traffic.
Gaw Wein Jetty is Mandalay’s main pier, where ships and boats transport construction materials, food and other products across the country along the Irrawaddy River’s shipping channel.
This jetty is home to many laborers like Maung Aye and Sein Hla Yee who came from different corners of Burma seeking work. Many of them have been on and around the riverbank for decades, their meager earnings not enough to rent a home in town.
“At first, we rented a home in a quarter near the jetty,” said Ma Khine, who came from a village near Bagan to work as a laborer 20 years earlier. “Later, we moved here as the rent increased and the landlords wanted a down payment of at least one year, which we couldn’t afford.”
“At my home village it was hard to get 3000 kyats a day. Here, we don’t need to worry about rental fees. If we work hard, we can earn around 10,000 kyats in a day sometimes, and then we can cook meat.”
Although officially homeless and occupying the riverbank illegally, members of the community has a long tradition of banding together to support each other, when they can.
“We got no help from the authorities or the individuals, said Myo Myo, the mother of a newborn baby. “We have to look after each other and help if someone has health problems. Some send their children for basic education but others can’t afford it.”
However, when the whole community was hit by the relocation and closure of the jetty for five days, few had money to spare.
“Five days might be a short period for some but for us, it was ages. Now we have to work really hard to earn more so that we can build back our huts, and we can’t even think about our health,” said Myo Myo.
Locals said that the recent eviction was not the first time they’ve been forced from the area, and is unlikely to be the last. Rumors of compensation and land grants on the outskirts of town have percolated throughout the community numerous times. They have never come true.
“The king or the president or the VIP—whoever comes whenever, we will be shooed away like stray dogs,” said Aye Kyaing, a resident of the riverbank for about 25 years.
“We heard the [Norwegian queen] was saddened after hearing our news. We want to tell them not to worry about us because this is not because of her, and we are used to such incidents,” she added.
Other, more ominous rumors are circulating amongst the squatters. Locals say a new ship dock will be constructed near Gaw Wein jetty, potentially precipitating a more permanent eviction from the area. While The Irrawaddy was unable to confirm the rumors with municipal authorities, workers have fenced off an area of the foreshore in anticipation of a new building project.
“To receive some compensation or a proper home is just a dream,” said San San Myint, a 40-year-old mother of four whose children all work on the jetty. “But to be moved out of this place for VIPs or a new project is the reality. We were told not to stay in the line of the fence they have some projects to do. If the authorities want us to move out again, we are prepared.”
“The authorities remember us when they want us to participate in their events, like the election in 2010, opening ceremonies, public gatherings. During those times, they invited us cheerfully, politely, and even transported us with big buses,” she added.
“But most of the time, we were forgotten. For the authorities, we are not human.”