Fri 14 Mar 2014
Filed under: Human Rights,Inside Burma,News
Within hours, the 160 homes were destroyed. If you travel about 25 kilometres north along the Yangon-Nay Pyi Taw Highway, turn off to the right at a red dirt road and drive for 20 minutes, you can still see the ruined bamboo cottages.
Thamee Kalay was the largest of eight villages that were destroyed that day by the authorities, on the grounds they had been built illegally on military-owned land.
“It was like hell,” said Ko Kyaw Soe Naing, 29, as he recalled the destruction of their homes.
Before the eviction notice arrived on January 27, residents earned a living by collecting gingerwort, bamboo shoots and other plants, working on rubber plantations or shovelling sand for construction companies.
When the notice came, “everybody was afraid in their hearts,” Daw Thaung Thaung, 42, said.
They stayed because they had nowhere else to go. Eight days later the machines arrived to destroy their homes.
They packed up their belongings and fled on foot. However, they encountered difficulties almost immediately, according to U Agga Dahma, the sayadaw of Thamee Kalay monastery, because they crossed into Bago Region, where officials were less than welcoming.
“The villagers gathered in Bago Region … but the Bago authorities didn’t want them,” he said.
They then took refuge at Aung Theik Di monastery near Alaing Ni Dam in Bago Region. Again, the village authorities told them to leave, although so far they have refused.
Their plight has attracted significant attention, and much of the debate has focused on whether they are opportunists seeking compensation or evicted villagers genuinely deserving of sympathy. The local National League for Democracy MP, U Phyo Min Thein, told journalists that Thamee Kalay was established only in 2013 and not recognised by the government.
The villagers, however, show planning documents for nearby Lagunbyin Dam from 2000 that clearly show the village marked.
“I don’t want to hear even the name of Phyo Min Thein,” was how Thamee Kalay village administrator U Tin Myint responded to the allegations.
Aged over 50, U Tin Myint said he was born and raised in Thamee Kalay. He said homes in the village were built without any kind of planning until 2011, when a road, monastery, medical clinic and administrator’s office were constructed.
He said their homes were destroyed while their application for village status was being processed by the government. He had even asked U Phyo Min Thein to help him get the village designated.
An MP from the rival Union Solidarity and Development Party, U Hla Than, has stepped into the breach. He told The Myanmar Times that he has helped arranged a new site for the displaced residents, about 32km from Thamee Kalay, with the permission of the Yangon Region government.
The Thamee Kalay villagers were expected to move there by March 17.
They are divided over the proposal, however. The new site is on a floodplain, and the rainy season is just months away. There are no roads to nearby villages, no jobs and no drinking water. They have been allocated 2400-square-foot plots, but it remains unclear how they will build homes. About 50 families, or one-third of the total, have so far refused to leave the monastery, despite promises that a well will be dug soon in the new village and a road will be built to connect it to nearby Wayar Gone.
“The people who don’t want to go are worried about the lack of jobs. Here they know how to survive for a living. But there, maybe we have to work for a rubber plantation and grow paddy during the rainy season. The works might be okay after some time but at first it won’t be easy,” said Ma Nilar Win, 29.
Her husband works as a mason. They have decided to move with their three children to the new village.
“We can’t stay at our old village. [The authorities] have forced us to leave and we think we will have to take whatever we can get, whether it is good or bad,” she added.
U Tin Myint, the former administrator, said he planned to move with his family, although he has no idea how they will survive. He tries to put on a brave face. “We can’t starve because the good spirits will ensure our mouths can eat.”
He perhaps has more reason for optimism then some. Those who refuse to go have no idea what the future holds; while they are not allowed to continue staying at the monastery indefinitely, they also cannot return home.
But in the uproar surrounding Thamee Kalay, residents of the other villages destroyed on February 4, which have from 20 to 40 households each, have largely been overlooked.
For now, they make their homes beside bamboo thickets.