Lacking Documents, Mandalay Squatters Struggle for Low-Cost Housing
By Zarni Mann 31 May 2016
MANDALAY — As the Mandalay City Development Committee (MCDC) has moved forward with its plan to relocate squatters in the city, complaints are being raised that many squatters were not properly accorded housing while some impostors were given more than one residence.
The complaints came after MCDC on Monday held a housing lottery for squatters to relocate them to a last batch of nearly 400 units in a newly built apartment complex along the Irrawaddy River.
Many squatters said they were not on the list to participate in the drawing, yet some people who did not live in the squatter camp were.
“People who were awarded the apartments rarely live in squatters’ huts. Some of them even received two or three apartments because they submitted the forms with the names of every family member,” said Ma Myo, one of the squatters living in Mandalay’s Kyaukthabeik riverbank area.
The squatters complained that they were not allowed to submit the forms to apply for the permit to stay in an apartment because they lacked the required documents, such as a national registration card, an alternative ID card or a registered family member list.
“They [MCDC] said the housing is for the squatters, but if we do not have an ID card or family member list, we cannot apply. However, there were many people who were not squatters who were allowed to apply, and they received apartments,” claimed Thein Soe, a one-time leader of a squatter community in Mandalay.
Living in small huts along the Irrawaddy River, the squatters mostly came from nearby villages in Mandalay Division. Many earn a living on Mandalay’s jetties, where they mostly work as porters, carrying goods from boats to trucks.
“We’ve lived here for many years but we only have a national registration card. They said it is not enough and we feel very sad because the water level of the river is rising and we will soon have no place to live,” said Cho Cho Oo, a squatter who works at Maychan Jetty.
The Black Market
“When the MCDC called for applications, some people did not submit forms, saying they didn’t want to live in tall buildings because they were afraid of earthquakes,” said Maw Maw Oo, who lives near Mandalay’s Gawwain Jetty.
“But when the MCDC announced that the squatters’ huts were going to be destroyed after providing the apartments, and when some people sold their apartments illegally to earn money, they rushed to apply,” she added.
According to former squatters living in the apartments, some units were sold illegally, without the MCDC’s knowledge, and the sellers fled far from Mandalay. The price of the apartments ranged from 1.7 million to 2.5 million kyats (US$1,400 to $2,140).
“Some even rented out their apartments and moved to another area of the town to live as squatters again or went back to their villages,” said Than Win Naing, a one-time squatter who is now living in a government-provided apartment.
“We are afraid to report this to MCDC because the people [breaking the law] may harm us. We’re also afraid MCDC would not believe us,” he added.
Cities like Rangoon and Mandalay, where there are many businesses and job opportunities, have attracted hundreds of thousands of poor from the countryside. But since they are often only able to work as day laborers, they earn just enough to feed themselves and their families and have no extra money to rent a home, leading them to settle for small huts in the squatter areas located on the outskirts of the big cities.
In Mandalay, before 2010, squatters were relocated to a newly established “new town” project area, where they were given ownership of small plots of land and houses.
However, when land prices in Mandalay rose, many sold their land to earn money and again moved back to their original squatter settlements.
According to squatters who are currently living in relocation apartments, the opportunists are working in groups and build their huts in squatter-dense areas when there is news of a relocation project.
“Even in this riverbank area, there are many squatters who just came and built their huts after hearing we received the apartments,” said Thant Zin Soe, a day laborer who so far has been unable to submit the proper forms to MCDC.
“They said they were here 20 years ago and they applied for the apartment. They have the required documents and once they receive their apartments, they sell them or rent them out,” he said.
“And now, they flee here with their money, and we never see them again,” he added.
MCDC’s Plans for Relocating Squatters
Nearly 1,600 apartments in six-story complexes are being rented to squatters at the low rate of 30,000 kyats per month.
The apartment buildings were built after a visit from the Norwegian monarch to Mandalay in December 2014. A royal tour by boat that included a stop in Mandalay prompted authorities to evict scores of squatters ahead of his arrival, a move met with criticism at the time.
Applications for living in the apartments were opened in that year and the chance to live in the complex was determined by a lottery. On Monday and Tuesday, the MCDC held a drawing for the last 393 apartments.
After receiving an apartment, the squatters must leave their huts along the river and are not allowed to stay in the area.
“The early applicants were given priority. We heard complaints about the documents but if a person cannot present both an ID and a family members list, it would be difficult for us to register them and to handle related issues,” said Saw Tun Oo, an officer from MCDC’s administration department.
The officer said any form of ID is important for the department as they need to register the squatters to prevent possible duplicates or impostors.
“We heard some people sold their national registration cards or family member lists, while some lent their IDs to make money. In such cases, they do not have their proof of ID, and we can’t help them,” he explained.
“We are also investigating the selling and renting of these apartments. Once we have more information, we will take legal action against them, kick them out of the area and will give those apartments to those who are really in need,” he added.
According to MCDC’s rules, selling or renting the low-cost housing is illegal, and should result in both buyers being kicked out and the sellers forfeiting the apartments.
The apartment buildings, which cost over 1 billion kyats to construct, were built in 2015 with funding from MCDC and the Mandalay divisional government under a plan by the previous mayor.
Since there are more than 3,000 squatters living along the riverbank, the MCDC said there are not enough apartments to relocate all of them. Further, plans to build more housing for the squatters have yet to be unveiled by the newly installed mayor and divisional government.
In early May, Zaw Myint Maung, the chief minister of Mandalay Division, told the media his government is collaborating with the MCDC to collect and register the squatters who live in Mandalay city. The chief minister said they will formulate a better plan to eliminate the culture of squatting and will try their best to create better living conditions for the homeless poor once enough data has been compiled.