RANGOON — Amid ongoing mass evictions in Rangoon and surrounding areas, the presidential spokesman has called for a land policy to handle the issue of squatters.
An estimated 10 percent of Rangoon’s population are illegal tenants, according to the divisional government, but squatting is widespread across Burma. Ye Htut, the presidential spokesman and deputy minister for information, says the country lacks a clear policy to handle the issue.
“For eviction cases, the government system seems to be broken down. There is no law enforcement in some areas, even in Naypyidaw,” he told The Irrawaddy last week.
“I heard that in Thaton, Mon State, a group has settled on a rubber plantation without the owner’s permission. Some activists are encouraging them, and soon people may start settling in other people’s homes. We will have to handle these cases seriously,” he said.
Most squatters in Naypyidaw came to the city from other areas for construction projects, he said. After finishing their work, many continue to live illegally in their project areas. “If we create job opportunities in their native towns, they can go back. If they have a regular salary, they can rent or own a house,” the presidential spokesman said.
He said monks were even guilty of squatting in the capital, after establishing monasteries without the required permit. In 2006 there were fewer than 10 monasteries in Naypyidaw, compared to about 30 monasteries today, he said.
“Squatters come from various places, they settle step by step. While we’re still considering how to take action, they have already set up their homes, so fast,” he said.
He added that half of all complaints received at the President’s Office over the past year concerned land disputes. However, a majority of these cases involve allegations that the state, the military or businesses seized land from farmers and other civilians.
Most squatters in Rangoon and surrounding areas are laborers who survive on daily wages of US$2.50 or less, while some have no regular income. Unable to buy or rent a residence, they become illegal tenants, settling in any free space they can find.
About 600,000 people in the city of 6 million are believed to be squatters. According to the Rangoon divisional legislature, about one-fifth of all homes in 44 of 45 townships were inhabited by illegal tenants in 2013.
On Jan. 15, more than 4,000 huts built by squatters on the outskirts of Burma’s former capital were demolished without explanation by the divisional government. The mass eviction targeted people living in rickety bamboo shacks beneath the Pan Hlaing Bridge, as well as those living in makeshift dwellings along the highway between the townships of Hlaing Tharyar and Twan Tae. Residents received little warning by the police or municipal and township administrators.
The divisional government says all squatters’ dwellings will be demolished by the end of this month.
“The squatters are not from Rangoon Division,” a senior official from the divisional government said last month. “They come from various states and regions [divisions]. Rangoon Division cannot accommodate all of them.”
Forced evictions are expected to occur mainly in Hlaing Tharyar, Shwe Pyi Thar, North Okkalapa, Dagon Seikkan, East Dagon and Insein townships.
Ye Htut said that under President Thein Sein’s administration, state and divisional officials have the authority to handle land disputes. “Land management is under the regional government. We only talk about policy, while the regional governments can take action,” he said.
“Under the previous government, some businessmen got vacant land across the country to help jumpstart their businesses, but most have not used that land until now. Union Minister U Soe Thein is reconsidering whether this land should be taken back,” he added.
He said the central government would need to consider how to enact a clear land policy, and that creating job opportunities for migrant workers would be a priority.
Moe Thida, assistance director of planning at the Department of Human Settlement and Housing Development [DHSHD], agreed that it would be necessary to focus on the legal framework.
“To solve these eviction cases properly, we need a land policy for them [squatters]. We need to survey the root causes of these cases,” she said, adding that depending on the department’s previous experience with handling evictions, international assistance might be useful.
“The DHSHD is considering these cases as top priority,” she said.
Burma has enacted a Farmland Law and a Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law, but the country does not have a law that governs evictions of squatters.