Myanmar government under Peace Prize winner revives harsh crackdown on slum dwellers

Burmese factory workers bath in muddy water behind their hostel in the Hlaing Tharyar industrial zone on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar. Though Myanmar’s growth is over 8.5 percent, and foreign direct investment topped $8 billion in this year, more than a third of Myanmar’s 51.4 million people still live on less than $1.25 a day. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

In what appears to be a revival of harsh practices of the former Burmese military dictatorship, police in Yangon, Myanmar arrested at least six people yesterday in the first major forced eviction of slum residents under Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government.

Residents of the shanty town in Hlegu township on the northern outskirts of Yangon protested and attempted to defend their homes. But they were no match for the more than 1,000 government workers, escorted by about 100 armed police, sent to demolish around 4,000 homes with chainsaws and sledgehammers. One policeman was injured when he was hit in the head by a stone.

“You idiots … you are all evil. How dare you do this?” one woman screamed, according to Agence-France Presse.

Forced evictions in cities and land grabs in rural areas were common for nearly five decades under the former military junta. Before taking power in April 2016, Suu Kyi’s civilian-led National League for Democracy party campaigned for years to support victims of forced evictions. But the military still wields significant influence, and experts say Suu Kyi’s solution to the cities’ growing slums is too similar.

“The government is useless and we were wrong to use our fingers to vote,” one man shouted as workers razed his home yesterday, according to Agence-France Presse. “The government is always afraid of the army. How can we rely on the government?”

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As Myanmar’s economy grows with democratic and economic reforms, young people, in particular, are moving toward cities by the thousands in hopes of escaping rural poverty. But rent in Yangon has skyrocketed, leaving many of these migrants to form shanty towns on the outskirts of the city near the factories where they work.

Last May, Suu Kyi unveiled her government’s solution: Place evicted “squatters” that are legitimately landless in “rehabilitation camps,” while “anarchical squatters” and “professional squatters,” who rent out the land to sub-tenants, are evicted for good.

However, experts warn that no city in Asia has been able to tackle rapid rural-to-urban migration through eviction, and pushing away these young migrants will actually stall development. As the economy opens up, it needs the low-skill, low-wage labor of these migrants.

Development is exactly what the city has in mind, though. According to local reports, Yangon authorities plan to develop the land in Hlegu township for new homes, schools, restaurants, parks, hospitals and a golf course.

Residents complained they were not given adequate notice or compensated for the loss of their homes, but authorities told Radio Free Asia they began issuing notices in August 2016 and continued to do so every month thereafter.

Still, more than 1,000 homes have been added to the slum in the last two months, according to local media reports. Government officials contend that many moved to the slum for compensation, knowing it would soon be cleared for development.

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“We will not compensate any of them, because they are squatters for their own profit,” Yu Khine, director of Yangon’s Planning and Housing Department, told Reuters. “This land belongs to the government.”

“We’ll try our best to carry out the removal of the houses in accordance with our laws and minimize their losses.” Khine told Radio Free Asia. “We have given them time to get their belongings and also formed a board to hear their complaints. We’ll explain the actions and help them move their belongings, too, if they have difficulties.”

But many residents feel cheated by the government and by those who sold them the land. Some told reporters that they purchased the land from village officials with all of their savings.

“I can’t afford living in Yangon. I wanted to own a house for the first time in my life, but now everything has been destroyed,” evicted resident Thein Htay, 49, told Reuters.

Htay bought the land from a broker two months ago for more than $440, after seeing an advertisement in a state paper. Standing next to the broken remains of his bamboo house, blankets, clothes, a television set and his 9-year-old son, he said, “Now I have nowhere to go, and I don’t have enough money to move to another place.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.