28 February 2014edge review

Photo: Hledan Junction, opposite the Yangon river from Hlaing Thar Yar and its expansive industrial zone, is among the city’s highest-density neighbourhoods (Alex Bookbinder).

Development in Myanmar’s commercial capital harms the most vulnerable

The contrasts between Dagon Seikkan township, some ten kilometres east of Yangon’s city centre, and the city itself are striking. One of many “satellite towns” established by a caretaker military government in the late 1950s, Dagon Seikkan and its ilk were supposed to provide homes for millions under an ambitious urban master plan for what was then one of Asia’s most vibrant and prosperous cities.

But Myanmar soon slid into autarky and poverty, and the dramatic population boom the authorities were expecting didn’t occur. Today, the township feels worlds away from the bustle and grime of central Yangon. Rice paddies mesh incongruously with overhead electrical wires, and palatial homes – owned, locals claim, by prominent military officials – abut massive shantytowns, home to the day-labouring masses that allow the city to function.

None of the residents of these informal settlements hold formal title to the land they live on. But as Myanmar begins to open up to the outside world, their homes have become increasingly valuable. Property values around the city have skyrocketed over the past two years in anticipation of a rush of foreign investment.

Tens of thousands of residents in one such shantytown, spanning three wards in Dagon Seikkan, were served eviction notices telling them to leave their homes – without compensation – by the middle of February. If the order is carried out, it will be the largest forced eviction in modern Myanmar’s history.

The land is set to be appropriated to make way for the Aye Yar Wun and Yadanar low-cost housing complexes, two of dozens slated for construction in remote parts of the city. Although the project is set to add 40,000 units to the city’s scarce housing supply, at an estimated price of US$20,000 each, they will be priced out of reach of the area’s current inhabitants.

The authorities have yet to act on the eviction order, but local residents are fearful for the future. “The authorities told us that we would have to leave on the 16th, but nobody has moved.,” said Hla Htwe Naing, a local shopkeeper. “There are many students here, so maybe the government is waiting for the end of the school year in March.”

He may soon become a refugee twice. He first came to Yangon in 2008, fleeing the devastation that was wrought upon his hometown of Bogalay in the Irrawaddy Delta, after the landfall of Cyclone Nargis. “Some people moved here and built houses, and others came and bought [pre-existing] houses from other people,” he said. “I just built my house and shop on that land over there  – I didn’t have to pay anyone.”

According to Daw Myint Thein, who has lived in the area for 14 years, the settlement blossomed from around 100 houses when she arrived to its current size starting in 2008, when the first wave of Nargis survivors arrived. The majority came after the 2010 elections, she claimed, due both to word-of-mouth from earlier migrants from the delta and the spiralling cost of living closer to the city.

According to a recent report by real-estate advisory New Crossroads Asia, rental prices in Yangon have risen a staggering 414% since 2009. Ma Nge moved to the settlement with her two sons in 2010 from Dagon Township in central Yangon, as she simply could not afford to stay in the city. “I got married in 1991, and rented a house with my husband,” she said. “But because rental prices rose, we came here. Now, they’re threatening to remove my house. It’s causing me headaches.”

An informal system of property ownership establishes who owns what in the settlement, but this is not recognised by the law. Many arrivals paid local authorities for permission to settle – sums of up to a few hundred dollars per plot. Others rent their homes, but their landlords do not hold formal titles, either. Only a tiny fraction of those affected by the development have been offered any form of compensation; most who paid local authorities for permission to stay will not see their money again.

Last year, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) prepared a comprehensive plan for the city in tandem with the Yangon City Development Commission (YCDC), the local authority responsible for urban planning and management. The agencies expect the city’s metropolitan population to double by 2040, and the report lays out general plans of action on everything from waste management and public transportation to land use.

JICA’s land-use plan calls for the development of the existing satellite towns into true CBDs, linked together by public transport. But despite the government’s push for low-cost housing, current plans make little room for the poorest, who are likely to be pushed out even further to the periphery as development progresses.

The pending eviction in Dagon Seikkan is not an isolated incident: in January, township officials destroyed roughly 4,000 homes on the periphery of the Shwe Lin Ban industrial zone in Hlaing Tharyar township. Two weeks ago, a long-established village was razed near the site of the proposed Hanthawaddy airport, near the regional capital of Bago, roughly 100 kilometres north of Yangon.

Dagon Seikkan’s location across the Yangon River from the new Thilawa Special Economic Zone gives it special prominence in Yangon’s rapidly changing urban landscape. Funded in large part by JICA and private Japanese companies, the zone will ultimately encompass more than 2,400 hectares of land. The first phase of the project, a 400-hectare industrial park, is expected to be operational by mid-2015, Reuters reports.

But the project has already displaced thousands of farmers, and the paltry assistance offered to them prompted the outgoing UN Special representative on Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, to raise the alarm last week. “The international community should support the [development] committee’s work,” he told Kyodo news agency, “so that it can ensure that Thilawa can help establish the precedence of large scale development projects being required to abide by human rights standards.”

But for the time being, those whose homes and livelihoods are threatened by “development” have few options at their disposal, and little recourse against those responsible for putting them in their predicament. “People are just looking for one place to lay down their heads,” said Ma San San Min, a resident of the Dagon Seikkan shantytown, who works as a street sweeper for YCDC near the city centre. “They want to live peacefully in their daily lives. If the government orders us to leave, we can’t work. It’s especially difficult for families with many children.”

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