RANGOON – A mother of two small children, Daw Tin Mar Win gazed on as a group of men demolished her bamboo thatched house with chainsaws, and cut down the mango trees that had surrounded it.
On Monday, nearly 400 tenants saw their shelters destroyed by authorities who deemed them “landlord squatters”—local property owners who unlawfully—and often unknowingly—purchase and then live on, government land. The destruction occurred in Kyauk Aing village of Hlegu Township, located near the Yangon-Naypyitaw highway.
Although Daw Tin Mar Win’s family has been living for almost two decades near Kyauk Aing, her house was labeled as a “new arrival.” She was allowed little time to pack her household goods before the house was taken down.
Her family begged the police officer overseeing the operations to spare the home, but the police carried out what they said was an order from the government.
“My child will return home from school in the next few hours. Where should we sleep, when the rain is coming?” she said, looking up at the clouds gathering in the sky.
Eco Green City Project
This removal is not the squatters’ first such experience. In 2015, Yangon’s then chief minister U Myint Swe bulldozed the entire slum, but as a long-term resident, Daw Tin Mar Win’s house was allowed to remain. Thousands of dwellers fled to neighboring villages. But the problems persisted, as vacant land in Hlegu filled with new arrivals.
When the National League for Democracy (NLD) government took office in April 2016, newly appointed Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein vowed to relocate the squatters to appropriate places elsewhere in Yangon after completing the documentation of a “real squatter” list. The government promised to take action against those who were occupying the land “dishonestly.”
In 2016, the regional government sent warning letters to Hlegu squatters asking them to leave state-owned land to make room for new buildings. The squatters’ location on more than 1,450 acres of land has been designated for the development of the “Eco Green City” project by the Alliance Stars Group of Companies.
The Ministry of Construction and the private developer signed a profit-sharing contract in 2016 lasting eight years, laying out plans for an affordable housing project, an international school, hospital, and golf resort as well as a rest area, according to a director within the construction ministry, who asked to remain anonymous.
According to him, the company will set up 4,000 units of housing, but the government and the company have reportedly not yet discussed shareholding arrangements.
U Yu Khine, director general of the housing department in Yangon Division, said that the project is likely to begin after the squatters have been removed from a designated two-mile area.
“Most of the people living here are landlord squatters,” he said. The process of “landlord squatting” can involve local property owners leasing government land to new arrivals in the area who are homeless.
The regional government deployed nearly 200 police and hired more than 1,000 people from various villages in Hlegu in order to demolish the homes of 4,000 unlawful residents on the land on Monday.
Some villagers said that they were offered 100,000 kyats per day to assist the police in tearing down the squatters’ homes. The police allowed the use of machetes, axes and crowbars, as well chainsaws, in the demolition.
The Irrawaddy learned that some tenants’ houses were empty when forces came in to tear them down. Villagers from Kyauk Aing also acknowledged that many people bought the land at a low price and built up huts in fields, without living in them full-time.
Police Brig-Gen Mya Win supervised the crackdown and ordered the police to open fire if the squatters responded aggressively to the destruction efforts. In the afternoon, four men and one woman were detained by police for obstructing the clearance of homes.
U Aung Tun, a villager who accompanied the authorities to remove squatter huts, told The Irrawaddy, “we are commanded to carry this out by the government. So we have to follow orders.”
Some police officers said that they were upset by the removal of houses of “real” squatters, referring to those families who had been living for decades on the outskirts areas of Kyauk Aing village.
‘A Cruel Crackdown’
Daw Khine Su Yin—mother to a one-year-old child—displayed a document stating that she had bought a plot of land for 1.2 million kyats from a Kyauk Aing villager three months ago, issued by a Kyauk Aing administrative official. She has since heard that the land is owned by the government. She constructed a house on the plot with bamboo poles and roofed it with thatched sheets.
“I did not think such a cruel crackdown would happen in Mother Suu’s administration,” she said, referring to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de-facto leader.
Daw Khine Su Yin is originally from Karenni State. She came to Yangon to find a job and later got married. In past years, they lived in the Hlaing Tharyar industrial zone, but monthly rental fees increased significantly in recent years, leading them to purchase cheap land near Hlegu in order to save money.
Daw Khine Su Yin’s situation is unfortunately not unique. Stories of resellers “cheating” the poor through the false sale of government land is frequent along the highway, where tens of thousands of houses have been built, making up such villages as Yadana Aung, Aung Yadana, Sein Lan, Gant Gaw Kyun and Aung Thu Kha.
Two months ago, this The Irrawaddy reporter met with the head of the village development committee in Yadana Aung, U Pyone Cho, who was issuing land ownership documents to new arrivals. He admitted that they are trespassing on government property, but said that they were providing land for homeless people at affordable prices.
According to him, the buyers need to bring a recommendation letter from the quarter’s administrative official to be granted land. The committee sold a 40-by-60-foot plot for between 100,000 and 500,000 kyats in early 2017.
“We are helping those who really need space to live,” said U Pyone Cho.
At the time of The Irrawaddy’s visit, some squatters had been building a steel structure market and preparing to build a school. Hundreds of houses were empty during the daytime hours. The committee has requested several times that the Union government allow them to establish a new village on vacant land.
U Pyone Cho said, “Actually, this is vacant land and the government has developed nothing, but, when the place is little bit good to live on, then the authorities force us to leave. It has happened twice in past.”
Plans for Resettlement
During a press conference on Tuesday marking achievements of the first year of the NLD administration, Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein told reporters that they had heard that some people were selling government property rights beside the main entrances roads in the commercial capital. Some assumed, he said, that the land would become developed, like a city
“I would like to say that that will never happen,” U Phyo Min Thein said.
He added that the establishment of a new city could only occur in line with existing laws, and that his government would take action against those illegally selling state assets. From May 2016 to June 2017, the regional government has surveyed 423 places in 19 townships. According to U Phyo Min Thein, the authorities have been documenting the total squatter population and estimate that there are around 400,000 such individuals in Yangon.
The divisional government plans to spend 64 billion kyats on resettlement projects. A securitization body will examine the background of applicants for new housing, to determine whether they are “real” squatters. UN agencies will also reportedly provide assistance in the relocation process.
It remains unclear whether some squatters from Hlegu—who have lived this way for decades—would also be recognized in the scheme. U Phyo Min Thein made a promise in last year’s press conference that squatters who trespassed on government land or in company compounds after May 25 would not be eligible for resettlement.
The houses of some such squatters were removed on Monday. At the time of publication, The Irrawaddy was not able to make contact with cabinet members regarding the demolitions.
Former deputy director of the Department of Human Settlement and Housing Development, U Myint Mo Swe suggested that in order to prevent similar problems in future, the government should publicly declare its land as state property and punish brokers who cheat vulnerable people by selling it off illegally.
Bringing the squatters to a new area, or forcing them to all live together would not work, he speculated, pointing out that they have settled on land near factories and their places of employment.
U Myint Mo Swe compared the problem to one experienced by neighboring Thailand, whose government constructed buildings for squatters and offered apartments with zero-deposit long-term leases, and eliminated banks’ interest rates on the project. Another option would be to lease roadside land to squatters with an agreement.
He recommended that the Yangon regional government categorize the types of squatters, and prioritize the projects accordingly. He added that the government should decrease bank interest rates for squatters if housing is provided, in order to ease barriers. Currently, government and private banks add 13 percent interest housing loans.
“That would be a big burden for poor people,” U Myint Mo Swe said.
Moreover, even profit sharing projects of the government are selling low-cost apartments with a down payment 30 percent of the property’s total value, placing such purchases out of reach for squatters. The monthly payments, he said, should consider the family’s earning potential, which is around 200,000 kyats per month.
To fully resolve the issue of squatting, the Union government, U Myint Mo Swe added, should increase state capital in a long-term investment in low-cost housing, as neighboring countries have done.
For now, at least, the problem of squatting is going to continue in Yangon. Recently-displaced Kyauk Aing villagers like Daw Khine Su Yin were forced look for unoccupied land nearby.
“I don’t know what to do now. I have nowhere to go. [The authorities] should punish the sellers who did this to us…I will collect things to rebuild my house for a temporary living arrangement,” she said.