By Rina Chandran
YANGON - Than Chaung was among the lucky ones when Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar in 2008: he and his family survived the country's worst natural disaster, fleeing to Yangon as the storm killed nearly 140,000 people and battered millions of homes.
But a decade on he was forced from his home again last December, this time by men wielding sledgehammers under orders from authorities to clear the shanty town where he lived.
The demolition of Nyaung village in Hlaing Thar Yar, an industrial zone in northwest Yangon, was the third last year, part of a government plan to relocate 440,000 slum dwellers in the city where 30 percent live in informal settlements.
Since the easing of political and economic restrictions began in 2011, demand for industrial land has surged - while natural disasters and a manufacturing boom in Yangon and Mandalay have spurred migration to these cities.
Than Chaung and other residents said they were hardly consulted nor compensated for losing their homes, which they said they built on land they bought from another villager.
Last year, a court ruled that their claim was not valid because the land belonged to a factory.
"They said we have to move because this is not our land. But we paid money for it," said Than Chaung, showing a photograph of a handwritten note that he said was a receipt for the purchase.
"We have lived here for many years. We cannot afford to go anywhere else."
With growing migration from rural areas, Yangon's population is forecast by the United Nations to nearly double to more than 11 million by 2040, placing an enormous strain on resources.
Many migrants come in search of jobs in factories and end up in the dozens of shanty towns built in recent years.
Authorities said residents are encroaching on private land, and relocation will improve the lives of the tens of thousands living in shanty towns that lack electricity, running water and sewage systems, and that are prone to flooding.
But human rights groups and the U.N.'s settlements agency, UN-Habitat, warned forced resettlement could make people poorer.
"There is a history of government-orchestrated forced resettlement in Myanmar and in Yangon in particular, to make way for urban development," UN-Habitat said in a report last year.
"Development-induced forced displacement and resettlement is increasing, uprooting and impoverishing people and undermining basic human rights."
A spokesman for Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) did not respond to e-mails and calls seeking comment.
As Asian cities expand quickly, governments have struggled to provide sufficient affordable housing as construction of luxury apartments and glitzy malls booms.
From Mumbai to Manila, the urban poor settle under bridges, along creeks and railway tracks, and beside landfills, under threat of forced evictions by authorities keen to modernise the cities and build more offices and malls.
In Myanmar's commercial capital Yangon, few informal settlements remain within the city, in contrast to other cities in the region, said Eben Forbes, an independent researcher.
"The historical practice has been to clear squatters from central Yangon and relocate them to new towns at the periphery," Forbes told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"This practice is problematic due to the trauma that eviction causes, the government's inability to extend basic urban services to the peripheral areas, and potential political consequences."
YCDC estimated the city will need more than 1.2 million housing units by 2040 for migrants and slum dwellers.
Yangon chief minister Phyo Min Thein had pledged to "solve the squatter problem" before the end of his term in 2020.
Last month he said about 130,000 households had been issued "smart cards", and would be prioritised for relocation.
"There are problems, and we will take time and effort to solve them," he was quoted as saying in the Myanmar Times.
Hlaing Thar Yar, with nearly half a million residents, is the city's largest industrial zone, crammed with export units of manufacturers of garments, car parts and processed foods.
Authorities have said slum residents will be resettled in two townships more than an hour's drive from central Yangon. Construction was to be completed by 2020, with easy access to jobs, schools, hospitals and public transport.
But UN-Habitat, in its report, advised against forced resettlement and encouraged in-situ upgrades instead.
From a total 423 informal settlements it mapped in Yangon, about 130 were suitable for upgrading, while the rest were in hazardous areas such as river banks and railway tracks, it said.
But authorities were "sceptical about in-situ incremental upgrading and prefer resettlement at this time", it added.
In Nyaung village, where about 600 families live, more than a dozen families, including Than Chaung's, spent about two weeks on the streets after their homes were demolished in December.
Then they knocked down the metal barricades placed around the rubble and tried to rebuild their homes, Than Chaung said.
His neighbour, Kyaw Su, who moved to the area nearly 20 years ago in search of work, was afraid her home will be next.
She has been selling fried snacks on the street since the demolition, too afraid to go to her job in a garment factory.
"What if they come back and knock down my house? Living like this, we can never be sure there won't be more evictions," she said.