At least six people were arrested on Monday as Yangon authorities started to clear a huge slum on the city’s northern fringes, as bitter competition for land in Myanmar’s commercial capital intensifies.
Armed police escorted hundreds of local authority workers wielding bamboo sticks, rakes, and saws as they descended on the shantytown in Hlegu Township – the first major forced eviction under the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Furious occupants screamed at the workers as they started pulling down bamboo houses early in the morning.
“You idiots… You are all evil. How dare you do this?” cried one woman.
Many directed their anger at Suu Kyi’s administration, accusing it of continuing the kind of land evictions that were common under military rule.
“The government is useless and we were wrong to use our fingers to vote,” one man shouted. “The government is always afraid of the army. How can we rely on the government?”
An AFP journalist saw five men and one woman being hauled into police vans for trying to stop the clearance.
Local reports said the slum, around 45 kilometers (28 miles) northeast of Yangon near the highway to Mandalay, included around 4,000 houses.
“We are paying the [demolition] workers K15,000 per day,” one police supervisor said. “If we don’t finish today, we will continue tomorrow. It may take a week or a month – nobody knows.”
Soaring rents and rapid urbanization have forced thousands of people into Yangon’s shantytowns, which are thought to house some 10-15 percent of the city’s population.
Myanmar’s former military government regularly confiscated land during its five decades in power, especially in rural areas, and staged mass evictions in many cities.
Competition for land has intensified since 2011, when the junta ceded power to a quasi-civilian administration that threw open the doors to international investors.
The government which took power last year has vowed to tackle the issue and in May 2016 announced plans to evict Yangon’s hundreds of thousands of squatters.
“This land is owned by the government,” Myat Marlar Htun, local MP from Hlegu township, told AFP on Monday.
“Most of the slum people here now arrived within a year, some in a few months.”
The slums will be replaced by new high-rise housing development – one of a rash of new projects springing up around the city – said a former city official, who asked to remain nameless.
Monday’s clearance is the second time in a year and a half that squatters have been kicked out of Hlegu. This slum had previously been cleared in 2015, but it sprang back up when squatters kept coming to the area.
Worker rights activist Ma Myo said many of the people who returned were unscrupulous dealers who had tried to grab the land for profit.
Squatters have no legal rights in Myanmar. International standards are supposed to guarantee compensation in the case of eviction but they are not enforced.
“We don’t have a place to live now. We have to sleep in the field tonight,” said a teary-eyed Daw Wine Su Khaing Thein, 50, who lost her home in the demolition. “We would like to ask the government to give us just a small piece of land for us to stay on. That would be enough for our life.”
Additional reporting by Hong Sar.