Ei Cho Khine once had dreams of becoming a tour guide. As a student back in her village in Magwe Region in central Burma, she would often encounter groups of foreigners being led by tour guides while helping her parents at their bein moke snack stall.
“My dream was to be a tour guide so I wanted to study English and computers, which is why I moved to Rangoon,” she said, recalling how in 2000, at the age of 19, she headed for the country’s then-capital.
Since then, however, her hopes have floundered. She arrived in Rangoon empty-handed and had to find cheap housing and take any available work to make ends meet. For the past 16 years she has toiled in one of the many garment factories in Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone on Rangoon’s northwestern outskirts.
“When I moved here I had ambitions. I had no intention of working in a garment factory but I couldn’t afford to keep studying English. Now it’s only about the money,” she said wearily.
Ei Cho Khine’s story is typical of the tens of thousands of people who move to the country’s commercial capital every year to escape rural poverty. Many of them of end up in Hlaing Tharyar’s slums, which are home to some 700,000 people.
The process of rural to urban migration is likely to accelerate as Burma’s economy grows following democratic and economic reforms, while the new National League for Democracy (NLD) government is likely to attract more foreign investment and the prospect of city jobs.
Urban planning experts warn that Rangoon is ill-prepared for the rapid influx of poor internal migrants and the unruly urbanisation this will bring.
They urge the government to come up with policies and measures to provide cheap housing and economic opportunities for the new arrivals.
“If you don’t have a proper response to urbanisation then you run a very big risk of widespread slums forming, of rising social inequality, an increase in gated communities, negative environmental consequences and urban poverty,” said Jack Finegan, urban programme specialist at UN-Habitat.
He said authorities should take measures now if Rangoon’s housing and infrastructure expansion is to keep up with population growth.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY
Most of those moving from rural areas to Rangoon are young people of working age who are abandoning the agriculture sector, where work is seasonal and underpaid, said Michael Slingsby, former UN-Habitat representative for Afghanistan, now an urban development and poverty advisor.
“In the city, there are opportunities to do something. Families have multiple sources of income and you have the possibility to work most of the year,” he told Myanmar Now.
With increased connectivity between cities and villages brought on by mobile phones and the internet, young people in rural areas learn about modern city life from relatives living there, prompting many to move. For some, the bright lights of the city promise freedom from the constraints of Burma’s conservative rural society.
“Now, I’m learning a lot and I’ve got freedom to do what I want. My parents aren’t here to control me,” said Khin Myat Noe Swe, 20, a garment factory worker in Hlaing Tharyar, who moved 5 years ago after hearing about the garment jobs in Rangoon from her cousin.
When she first left Myothit, a town in Magwe Region, for Hlaing Tharyar, she lived in a 10-by-10 foot hostel room that she shared with three other workers. They ate, slept and washed in the hostel, which provided cheap accommodation to newly arrived migrants; its 14 rooms housed 56 people who shared three toilets.
Her living situation has markedly improved since then. She now lives in accommodation provided by Thone Pan Hla, a not-for-profit organisation which focuses on the welfare of women garment workers where she lives with other, single women of her own age.
While some are drawn to the city by its opportunities, others are pushed there by the difficult circumstances in their villages: a failed harvest or indebtedness that may lead to loss of land, or the destruction wrought by natural disaster.
Kyi Soe has lived in a bamboo hut in Nyaung Yar, a slum area in Hlaing Tharyar, for 19 years. He has seen many migrants arrive over the years, but said the slums here swelled overnight after Cyclone Nargis devastated Ayeyarwady Delta in 2008. Burma’s worst-ever disaster killed an estimated 138,000 people and destroyed the livelihoods and assets of many more farmers.
“We live from hand to mouth and the cost of living goes up day by day. All of my wage is spent on just surviving,” he said, adding that in recent months, rumours have been circulating that the Nyaung Yar’s several thousand residents will be forcibly evicted by the government.
“Now, I am really anxious, I worry that when I’m at work my house will be destroyed by the government; the same thing they’ve done to other squatters in Rangoon,” he said.
REFORMS SPEED UP URBAN GROWTH
As in many developing countries, urbanisation in Burma is seen as a logical and important step for its economic and social development. Urban incomes are higher and health care and education are more easily accessible to city dwellers. Industries and business can develop in thriving cities, which are also home to a rising middle class.
Due to its isolation under the former military regime, urbanisation in Burma has lagged behind; 70 percent of the nation still lives in rural areas, making it the third-least urbanised country in Southeast Asia. Following democratic reforms and drastic steps to modernise and open up the economy in recent years, GDP growth is taking off, reaching 8.4 percent in 2015.
According to UN-Habitat in Burma, Rangoon’s population is set to grow at 4 percent annually and could expand from around 5.7 million residents now to more than 11 million in 2040. Much of this growth will come from rural migrants finding their way to the city, experts said.
“With Burma opening up, there will be more non-agricultural jobs, so people will be heading from rural to urban areas. This is just an irreversible trend and there’s nothing anybody can do about it,” said Mitchiko Ito, programme manager of International Organisation for Migration.
“It’s a global trend, but what’s special about Burma’s case is that it in the past this hasn’t happened at the rate of other countries, so it will now happen quickly.”
LEARNING FROM NEIGHBOURS
After five decades of army rule, which saw the regime move the government capital to Naypyitaw, Rangoon’s infrastructure and housing sectors are poorly developed, its crumbling colonial-era downtown is neglected, and its transport system dysfunctional.
Yet, Rangoon is a clean slate for urban planners when compared to mega cities in the region, such as Bangkok, Manila and Jakarta, where authorities have tried to manage rapid urban growth and modern city development decades earlier.
Several experts who spoke to Myanmar Now said Rangoon’s authorities now have a brief window to learn from the successes and mistakes of these cities in order to achieve sustainable urban growth that also provides adequate living conditions for migrants.
Effective, cheap housing solutions for the new city dwellers should be the first priority for Rangoon authorities, they said.
“Urban poverty is difficult to address so prevention is easier than curing. There is a very good opportunity for Rangoon to take stock of what hasn’t worked (elsewhere) and how it can plan for a better integration of new migrants into the city in the future,” said Finegan, of UN-Habitat.
Rangoon has experienced a real estate boom since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took office in 2011, this has driven up property and rent prices across the city, including in slum areas.
Rangoon Region authorities said they are taking measures to provide affordable housing for the poor. In the 2015/16 budget year, authorities commissioned the construction of 10,160 ‘low cost’ apartments, but officials acknowledge that with each apartment costing around US$9,000, they would offer little opportunity to those living in slums.
“We’ve tried to sell them to low income earners but they couldn’t afford them, they were too expensive for the poorest,” said Min Aung Aye, deputy director of the Housing Development Division of the Department of Urban and Housing Development.
Subsequently, the government decided some of the new housing would be made available as rental apartments for the lowest income groups; officials are now drafting eligibility criteria and pricing models according to income.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING, NOT EVICTIONS
Despite Rangoon authorities public commitment to developing affordable housing, some activists and politicians question the government’s approach, saying its housing policies are ineffective, while slum dwellers usually face evictions rather than support.
Rangoon authorities are accused of routinely cracking down on what are deemed “illegal squatter” areas. Often, security forces are ordered to forcibly evict slums, an approach that activists say violates the poor’s land and tenure rights.
Activists say the practice worsened under the Thein Sein government and in January authorities twice sent in police and bulldozers to clear squatters communities on the outskirts of Rangoon, destroying hundreds of homes and condemning families to the streets.
There is hope that the incoming NLD government, which won a huge mandate in the November election, will end the forced eviction of squatters and controversial land grabs. Although NLD officials have said little about specifics, the party’s 2015 election manifesto outlines such reforms.
“We will establish, as quickly as possible, a programme for the rehousing of homeless migrants, who have moved to the cities as a result of natural disasters, economic opportunities, and land confiscation,” the manifesto says.
Win Maung, a Rangoon Region lawmaker from Hlaing Tharyar representing the NLD told Myanmar Now: “Using armed force to destroy people’s homes simply because they have no legal rights is not a realistic solution to this (housing) problem.”
Van Liza, director of Rangoon-based non-profit organisation Women for the World, said government policies on land tenure and low-cost housing had failed to help the poor. “Who are these projects really for? Those with money,” she said of the affordable housing developments.
Women for the World, which Van Liza co-founded, ran a pilot scheme in a Rangoon slum that established a collectivised loan scheme. The community used it to fund small infrastructure projects in the area and the scheme provides low interest rate loans for individual households who use the money to upgrade their homes.
“Community-based saving is a key tool that empowers people. Poor people don’t want a free house, they just want to be able to own some land,” she said.
A successful model used in other developing countries gives slum dwellers de-facto tenure or actual legal tenure, after which the government provides infrastructure to the area. This allows people to invest in upgrading their houses and improve the neighbourhood, said Finegan, of UN-Habitat.
“The key issue is tenure. People need certainty that they will be able to stay in place. Slum upgrading has proved effective when we allow people to do it themselves,” he said.