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Settlers from several villages in Rangoon Division’s Hlegu Township, have been forced off the land they are occupying, by authorities cracking down on squatting.
In the early morning on 4 February, Rangoon division authorities began rolling in bulldozers to Thameelay village, announcing to the residents over loudspeakers that they were being evicted.
Settlers said bulldozers began tearing down houses at 5:30am, leaving very little time to save their belongings and farm equipment.
“I am very sad – now we are homeless,” said one Thameelay settler. “I would like to tell the President – we are Burmese citizens born and raised in Burma but we are being tormented by our own people bringing down our houses.
An estimated 50 farm operators run businesses in the area and several farmers said they were prevented from retrieving their farming equipment before demolition began.
Zaw Win Naing said seven of his farm huts were destroyed.
“I was allowed to go back to the village to collect the TV, power generator and other equipment left behind for the workers’ use, but an official in civilian clothing with a gun around his waist said not to take all of the mango and rubber plants.”
The residents were told they would be hit with up to 3 years in jail if they resisted.
Residents claim that five villages, Thameelay, Kywete, Innmati, Oakpho and Wapanat, were founded by groups of settlers in 1998 – when they began occupying the land, owned by the Burmese military.
The construction of the Hanthawaddy International Airport 20 kilometers away supposedly drew more and more people to the settlements.
Up until the demolition, 1,000 families lived in Thameelay village.
However, Lower House Representative for Hlegu Township, Phyo Min Thein, said 300 acres of the land was bought by one man, Kyaw Kyaw, in 2012. He then began divvying up the land to settlers and turned it into Thameelay village.
“He invited settlers, promising them land plots via lucky draw,” Phyo Min Thein told DVB. “Many workers from rubber plantations across the Pegu River came to settle at Thameelay village working as brokers on land deals in the area.”
Phyo Min Thein said after hearing rumours that the military was giving up the land, “swindlers from nearby villages” moved in and claimed original ownership of the land plots. They then sold them back to unsuspecting settlers and farm operators.
The demolition in Thameelay village seems to be part of wider efforts to crack down on squatting throughout the region.
There are reports of mafias of squatters who are taking advantage of land where ownership is disputed.
“The question is, are these people squatting because they really have nowhere to go? Or are they just opportunists, as alleged by some, trying to claim ownership of the land?” Khin Maung Swe, Chairman of the National Democratic Force party said.
“I think it will be impossible for us to make a conclusion without knowing the details. But if they turn out to be the former, then the government should come up with a plan to resettle them first before demolishing their homes.”
About 500 settlers evicted from the villages were sheltering in a monastery in nearby Bago.
They have been told they have a week to vacate the premises.