RANGOON — A mother of two children, 34-year-old Thuzar Moe originally hails from the Irrawaddy Delta’s Hinthada Township. She has been living for almost two decades in an industrial zone in Hlaing Tharyar Township on the outskirts of Rangoon, since her family migrated to the area when she was 16 years old.
She spoke to The Irrawaddy on November 8, the day of Burma’s general election, and exactly four months later in February, following the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) victory.
“My family voted for the NLD,” Thuzar Moe said, echoing the sentiments of nearly all those interviewed by The Irrawaddy in Hlaing Tharyar on election day. The township is reportedly one of Burma’s most densely populated, and home to tens of thousands of squatters like Thuzar Moe, who have eked out a living on industrial and government land for years.
Many feel that a solution to the issue of homelessness and illegal tenancy will be a test of Burma’s new government.
But for the time being, things have yet to improve in Shwe Lin Pan quarter, where Thuzar Moe and her family live. Despite recent bulldozing of squatter housing around Rangoon intended to deter undocumented settlements, even more people have arrived in Hlaing Tharyar in recent months: 600 families who Thuzar Moe said have come from Arakan State.
She said she has seen photos of the home demolitions on social media. On Jan. 26, local authorities in Rangoon hired 1,500 men and employed excavators to destroy about 500 houses in Kon Ta La Paung village in the city’s Pyinmabin Industrial Zone. They alleged that people living there were trespassers.
“I am also a squatter like them. I know how they feel,” she said. “If the authorities are going to remove us, we have no place to run.”
No Apartment, No Land
Near Thuzar Moe’s house, a white four-story concrete building towers over makeshift shelters. She said they have been built by the government and are classified as “low cost apartments.”
Chit San Ko, another squatter who lives near the building, said that government staff live there and bought their apartments through an installment plan. Many owners then lease their rooms to tenants, but the rentals still remain too costly for laborers like Chit San Ko.
“We can’t afford to rent those apartments,” he said. “Over 70,000 kyats (US$56) for a month is a burden for me.”
If migrants had the opportunity to rent space in these buildings, the number of those living on the land as squatters would decrease everyday, he said.
Homeless people have been encouraged to apply for subsidized apartments in Rangoon’s South Dagon Township, where Bandula Housing offers rooms for 30,000 kyats (US$24) per month. Yet the demand is much higher than the number of available units, and every applicant must provide a household registration form in order to be considered for tenancy.
“How can the squatters get one of these apartments? They don’t have a [household registration] form,” said Myat Min Thu, a newly elected NLD regional MP representing constituency number two in Hlaing Tharyar Township.
In Rangoon, this documentation requirement excludes most of the homeless population. The division’s electoral sub-commission chief, Ko Ko, estimated in 2015 that up to 100,000 people in the region had not been issued household registration certificates. He pointed out that no up-to-date list of squatter populations in Rangoon existed, but estimated that Hlaing Tharyar had an unregistered migrant population of at least 30,000.
With little hope of landing a government apartment, Thuzar Moe instead looked into renting a plot of land in Shwe Lin Pan quarter. When her family first arrived in the township, they had also rented land; at that time, the leasing fee was a mere 3,000 kyats (less than US$2.50) per month. Now the rate is 50,000 kyats (US$40) and any housing on the land has to be constructed by the tenant.
Mothers like Thuzar Moe end up choosing between schooling their children and paying for legal housing.
“I have to pay for my children [to go to school]. Instead of renting an apartment, I can spend that money on my children’s education.”
‘A Solution in Six Months’
If more opportunities existed in their native towns, fewer people would be tempted to leave them, Myat Min Thu told The Irrawaddy. He hypothesizes that development of the states and divisions outside of Rangoon would decrease the internal migration that leads to squatting.
Better law enforcement will be integral in learning how to address the issue in Hlaing Tharyar, where, he said, many squatters live under the protection of gangs, who collect “tax” in exchange for protection from authorities.
Myat Min Thu also lamented the acceptance of bribes by the local administration in exchange for residency or roadside shop permits, both of which contribute to growing squatter settlements.
Aung Ko Oo, the third Hlaing Tharyar township administrator to serve in the last five years, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Although Myat Min Thu did not describe an NLD strategy to address the squatting issue, he promised to reveal a plan soon.
“I will submit a proposal for the squatter problem within six months,” he said.
Hlaing Tharyar is now represented by NLD MPs in the Lower and Upper Houses and in the two constituencies in the regional parliament.
Thuzar Moe believes better living conditions will accompany the party’s leadership over the next five years.
“All I need is space to live here,” she said.