Hundreds of squatters, some armed with bamboo poles, have faced off against police and Yangon City Development Committee officials over the demolition of their homes.The confrontation on February 1 occurred after several hundred people descended on an empty 16-acre site in Hlaing Tharyar township the previous night and erected makeshift homes, apparently because they had heard all rents in the area would go up K5000 from February.

The homes were demolished by YCDC the next day and when The Myanmar Times visited the site later on February 1, some were trying to rebuild the houses again.

When a group of officials arrived to demolish the dwellings for a second time, the squatters threatened them with makeshift weapons.

“People came here last night, at about 8pm, and started building houses. At first there was just a small group of people but later the group grew larger and larger. I don’t know how they got here. There must have been at least 300 people,” said Daw Mar Oo, who lives in Hlaing Tharyar’s No 6 quarter.

The site was to be used for a low-cost housing project to be jointly developed by Department of Human Settlement and Housing Development (DHSHD) and construction company Star Light.

DHSHD official Daw Myint Myint Aye said she was waiting for instructions from the “higher levels” in Nay Pyi Taw about how to proceed. While she travelled to Hlaing Tharyar to observe the standoff, she said she had not tried to talk to the squatters.

“These people started building houses at 8pm on January 31. YCDC destroyed [the homes] and warned them not to live here from the morning of February 1. But they have not left yet. We reported this situation to Nay Pyi Taw and are waiting for more instructions,” she said.

A witness who asked not to be identified said the catalyst for the situation was a rumour that rental homes would increase by at least K5000 in February. Basic bamboo huts are rented for about K30,000, while sturdier dwellings are at least K40,000.

“There are so many poor in Hlaing Tharyar and most of them are blue-collar workers. Of course they can’t pay any more rent. This week, there were rumours about increasing rents in this township and usually money is paid on the fifth day of every month. So I think people were trying to avoid paying higher rents and looked for another place to live for a while,” she said.

Some of the people who had occupied the site said they could not afford to pay the current market rate.

“We have no choice. Rentals are higher than last year and we can’t afford to pay. I have four children but no husband. The money I get from selling traditional snacks is only K2000-3000 a day. I am barely able to feed my children with that money and there’s not enough to pay rent as well,” said Daw May Htet Htet, 42.

She said she had stayed temporarily with her friend’s family for a few months but her friend had asked her to leave. With nowhere to go, she decided to build a house on the empty land.

“But the officials destroyed our houses again and again. Even if I have to grab a knife and face the officials, I will do it if it means I can stay with my children in a house,” she said.

Ma Khine, a knife-wielding day labourer, said she had built a house on the site illegally on January 31 because she could no longer afford to stay in a hostel. She said work was hard to come by, as factory managers at Hlaing Tharyar prefer to hire younger rather than middle-aged women because they think they work faster.

“We have to pay K30,000 a month for a hostel. If I stay alone, I can’t afford to pay this so I have to share my room with three other girls. But lately our income is getting lower because we are over 30. So our money is not enough to pay the rent after we give some to our parents and pay for living costs.”

Ma Lei Lei said she would move from the land when the housing project gets underway.

“We will move when the project starts. We don’t have a plan to live here forever. We are just asking them to let us live for a few months before they start building,” Ma Lei Lei said.

“This land has been empty for a long time. And last night we heard that some people are living here and there is plenty of empty land to live so we came here to get a place. But officials are forcing us to leave. If we leave, we have nowhere to go because we left from our hostel without paying rent for January. That’s why we refuse to leave,” she said.

Star Light director U Zaw Min Tun said the housing project had started in early 2012 and the company was building fences at the site.