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Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Soaring land prices push Myanmar's poor into streets

Hard life: A woman feeding her baby in their bamboo house built in the compound of a Buddhist monastery in a suburb of Myanmar’s former capital Yangon. — AFP

Hard life: A woman feeding her baby in their bamboo house built in the compound of a Buddhist monastery in a suburb of Myanmar’s former capital Yangon. — AFP

YANGON: Soaring rents in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon have seen hundreds of poor families shunted from their homes, forcing them to turn to charity as their last buffer from life on the streets.

Political transformation, which has swept the country since the quasi-civilian government took power in 2011, has seen sanctions lifted from the former pariah state and stoked rising investment interest in the perceived frontier market.

But the changes have also fuelled rampant speculation in the commercial hub Yangon, squeezing the poor into homelessness.

“Whole families came saying they had no place to live, nothing to eat, begging for help,” said 61-year-old Khin San Oo, manager at a makeshift centre for the displaced in a Buddhist monastery in a scruffy suburb of the former capital.

Abbott Ottamasara offered free plots on 30 acres of land at the Thabarwa – or “nature” – compound 16 months ago and word has spread fast, drawing penniless families from Yangon and surrounding districts.

More than 2,400 families have now built small shanties in the grounds an hour’s drive from downtown Yangon.

Hundreds of others, who cannot afford construction costs, are sheltering in a communal bamboo dormitory at the site, which is home to a meditation centre.

Surging demand for property as Myanmar undergoes rapid change since shedding the isolation of junta rule has threatened to push more people from their homes, with rent hikes compounding low wages in and around the country’s most populous city.

Figures from estate agents show rents have risen by 25% this year for a small Yangon apartment, while sales prices have doubled or even trebled over the past two years in some neighbourhoods.

Tin Tin Win, 57, says she was forced to move to the compound with her daughter, son, two grandchildren and husband, after the family was asked to pay six months in advance to renew the lease on their property.

“Our rent went up several times... we couldn’t afford to stay in our house. That’s why we had to move here,” she said, adding that she was secure, but uncomfortable, in the cramped new lodgings.

President Thein Sein has made slashing poverty rates a pillar of reforms in Myanmar, where the former military rulers neglected to build a state safety net during their corrupt, decades-long rule.

But that goal appears far off.

“The whole world now knows that the land price here (in Yangon) is very expensive,” said Than Oo, 64, managing director of Mandaing real estate company.

Families have been forced out to satellite towns because of the high rents, he said, urging the “stabilisation of the real estate market”.

Monks at the monastery have been unable to turn away the cascade of new arrivals. But staff say the land is now full, leaving the abbot scratching around for donors with space to spare for the needy.

Myint Nwe, who lives in the monastery’s stable-like dormitory with her nine-strong family, is grateful for the lifeline offered by the abbot.

“My husband had a stroke two years ago. After that we had nothing to eat,” said the mother of five, explaining how they came to the monastery, as her husband sat expressionless next to her.

While she is able to sell fruit to buy occasional snacks for her children or medicine for her husband, Myint Nwe, like many others in the monastery housing, can see no way back to independence. — AFP

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