Inside the village of mercy for Myanmar’s landless poor

As rising land and property prices push out the poor, a village of 15ft plots offers an alternative to homelessness.

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Saytanar village is a charitable experiment by revered Buddhist monk Sayadaw U Ottamasara [Will Baxter/Al Jazeera]

Aye Aye Thin, 44, is worried about her retirement. In six years’ time, her husband will stop receiving the salary he makes today as a civil servant. Then, Aye, her husband and their five children will have to leave the government house they currently live in.

“We wanted to buy land, but I don’t think we will be able to afford it,” says the housewife who also sells some groceries to supplement the 170,000 kyats ($130) her husband earns every month.

Aye Aye Thin, like many others in Myanmar, is anxious about the rapid increase in land and property prices that have followed the political reforms launched five years ago, after almost 50 years of military rule. “It is 10 times what it used to be,” she says.

In March 2011, a semi-civilian government, led by former general Thein Sein, took power and started a process of economic liberalisation that allowed foreign investment to flock into the country.

In November 2012, a new Foreign Investment Law was passed that allowed foreign investors to sell and lease residential properties, something previously forbidden, when a joint venture with a Myanmar citizen or entity is established. A new Condominium Law was also recently approved permitting foreigners to buy a maximum of 40 percent of units in condominium developments from the sixth storey and above, although most buildings in the country do not meet the conditions set out in the law.

After decades of economic isolation, the newcomers have pushed up the price of the land. According to a report released by the real estate research firm Colliers International, in 2014 Yangon had the highest rental prices for prime office space in Southeast Asia, with an average of $87 per square metre – 21 percent higher than in Singapore and five times higher than 2011 prices. “This is despite all offices in Yangon being below international Grade A building standards,” says the report.

But, a few kilometres from Yangon, Aye Aye Thin has found a way out of a poverty-stricken future.

The Thabarwa Monastery, in Thanlyin Township, is far from the haven of peace and tranquility usually associated with Buddhist temples. The ground floor of the main meditation hall is packed with hundreds of people – eating, talking, resting. Some are just visitors who come to meditate, but many are permanent residents.

Like Aye Aye Thin, they are landless people with nowhere else to go.

“There are many families [in Myanmar] who have no land, no home, no money, no job. Their lives are not stable, they have to migrate,” says Ashin Ottamasara, the 46-year-old monk who opened the monastery in 2008.

Buddhist monk Ottamasara leads an alms collection at the Saytanar (Mercy) village, near Thanlyin, Myanmar [Will Baxter/Al Jazeera] 
Buddhist monk Ottamasara leads an alms collection at the Saytanar (Mercy) village, near Thanlyin, Myanmar [Will Baxter/Al Jazeera] 

According to USAID, landlessness among Myanmar’s rural population ranges from 30 to 50 percent in a country where 70 percent depend on agriculture for their livelihood.

“The government changed its policy and people from abroad can [now] come and do business so the price of the land has become very high,” says Ottamasara.

Noticing the number of landless people seeking refuge at the monastery, he bought an adjacent plot of land in 2012, split it into 15sq ft parcels and gave them away to people who could not afford to rent or buy a house.

Today, 10,000 people live on that plot informally known as the “15 feet” village. Ottamasara has dubbed the project Saytanar (or Mercy) village and is building a new village, a few dozen kilometres away. 

Only one thing is asked of those wanting to move into the new village: that they participate in a seven-day meditation retreat at the monastery.

“At the beginning we were not asking people to do the meditation, but some problems came at the village,” the monk explains. “I was recommended to do it to know which families were suitable to donate the land to.”

No proof of income is asked for, however. “The village is not only for poor people. It is also for those who want to do good deeds,” Ottamasara says.

Most of the residents of the “15 feet” village ended up there when their unpaid rent bills started to pile up.

Daw Win Ye, 45, wandered from one place to another for years just trying to escape the rising rental prices in Yangon. A widowed mother of five children, she earned a modest salary as a cleaning lady that was not enough to cope with the new cost of life in Yangon. “I was staying just a few months [in each apartment], before the price went up,” she says.

Aye Aye Thin, still a candidate for one of the parcels, is not in such a hurry but wants to make sure that she will have a place to live in the future. “My mother and my brother will move first to prepare everything,” she explains.

A complicated system of ownership

The ownership system at the “15 feet” village is similar to the country’s traditional system. The land is supposed to belong to the monastery and residents have restricted ownership rights insofar as they cannot sell the land.

Myanmar’s 1947 constitution, however, approved just after independence from the British, stipulated that land ultimately belonged to the state. This policy was reinforced after the Ne Win coup d’état in 1962 and the implementation of the “Burmese Way to Socialism”, when several laws strengthened the process of nationalisation of the land.

In the current constitution, approved in 2008, the land still belongs to the Union of Myanmar but the text grants citizens the “right of private property, right of inheritance, right of private initiative and patent in accord with the law”.

Yet, despite the constitutional guarantee, people feel there are no institutions in place to ensure these rights, and the government can take the land at any time. Legislation was brought forth to address this kind of land-grabbing by officials, with a number of regulations released over the past few years.

One of the most important was the Farmland Law, which states that land use rights can be legally bought, sold and transferred on a land market in the form of a Land Use Certificate (LUS). Those LUSs are granted by local officials, but the rights can be revoked by the Central Farmland Management Body. 

This power given to the authorities to decide on the land rights, however, leaves the door open to land grabbing. Activists point at land-grabbing as an increasing problem in Myanmar.

According to the Myanmar Times, in just under two years, the parliament’s Farmland Investigation Commission, the body tasked with scrutinising land grabs, has received more than 30,000 cases. Of these, only two-thirds have been heard, and in fewer than 1,000 – a mere 4 percent – has it ruled that compensation is justified.  According to the law, those whose rights are revoked have no right to any compensation. 

Established in 2012, Saytanar (Mercy) village is now home to about 2,650 families who were given land for free by Ottamasara [Will Baxter/Al Jazeera] 
Established in 2012, Saytanar (Mercy) village is now home to about 2,650 families who were given land for free by Ottamasara [Will Baxter/Al Jazeera] 

The Thein Sein government has also been discussing a Draft National Land Use Policy since 2014, as a step towards approving the country’s first Land Law, which may improve access to land for some of the most vulnerable people.

“The land policy is very clearly pro-poor and there are many provisions that protect against land grabbing,” says Nyein Zarni Naing, a lawyer and land specialist from the Land Core Group, a local NGO working on land issues.

“The current draft of the land policy [also] says something about how to regulate land speculation [to avoid] a large amount of land being owned by someone or a group of people, but it is not very detailed. But it indicates that there is a problem in Myanmar,” he continues.

One of the challenges of the new law, Nyein Zarni explains, will be the recognition of land rights in those areas troubled by ethnic conflicts and tensions. “It is recognised according to the draft but it is still not clear how to do it,” the lawyer says.

Myanmar has suffered from a long-running civil conflict in border areas with several ethnic groups that have been fighting for decades against the central government. Activists claim that villagers in conflict areas are especially vulnerable to land-grabbing and other rights abuses.

A report released last year by the Karen Human Rights Group, a NGO monitoring Karen state, one of the areas in conflict, pointed out that land confiscations linked to infrastructure projects, natural resource extraction, and commercial agriculture projects were on the rise in the region.

In October 2015, eight armed groups, including the Karen National Union, the main rebel group in Karen state, signed a National Ceasefire Agreement with the government, but some of other important rebel groups, such as the Wa or the Kachin, refused to sign. 

As of April 1, however, that task will pass to the longtime opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD),  which won last November’s elections. In their political manifesto published before the vote, the NLD recognised the “right to own and to transfer land in accordance with the law” and announced “livelihood programmes for the landless and itinerant workers”.

“Every farmer working in the field must own his land,” says U Nyan Win, a spokesperson for the NLD.

A shelter for desperate farmers

The “15 feet” village is already a busy and well-established community. The streets have names, the market offers a wide range of products, from clothes to food or cooking utensils, and small shops have mushroomed at every corner. The children attend a rudimentary school while adults gather at teashops. There are dentists and private English classes.

Although, as in the rest of Myanmar, the people do not own the land, they have started selling and renting their allocated plots.  They are doing this informally. Some give a paper saying that they pass the rights on to someone else. It goes against the purpose of the village, but Ottamasara said he could not control what everyone in the village does.

Now that the village is at full capacity, the other way to get a place is to find someone who wants to leave.

“Here land is very cheap. It is impossible to get the same price anywhere else in Myanmar,” says Kyaw Ye Khang, an English teacher who paid around $1,500 a year ago for a small plot of land that would have cost at least three times as much just a few metres outside the village.

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Tun Shwe, 54, found some prosperity in the village. Like many of his neighbours, Tun Shwe used to be a modest rice farmer in the Irrawaddy River delta. He was drowning in the increasing price of fertiliser and the decreasing yields. “The weather conditions are not what they used to be any more. There is no water,” he says.

When he arrived in the village in 2012, he opened a small shop on Freedom Street, near the market, where he sold groceries and charcoal. Today, his shop is the biggest in the village and Tun Shwe considers himself a flourishing entrepreneur. “I have a quiet life now. I don’t have to worry about money any more,” he says.

Buddhist laywomen and nuns meditate during an early-morning class at the Thabarwa Meditation Center [Will Baxter/Al Jazeera] 
Buddhist laywomen and nuns meditate during an early-morning class at the Thabarwa Meditation Center [Will Baxter/Al Jazeera] 

However, the “15 feet” village is far from perfect. The streets are dusty, drinking water is scarce during the summer and the public toilets are easily flooded.

“One of the main problems is the low standard of living. We are trying to change the houses from bamboo huts into concrete structures, so they don’t burn so easily, and I also want to build a crematorium. We have problems with the dead bodies,” explains Khin Lay Chit, the manager of the village. “But we don’t have enough money.”

The money comes from Ashin Ottamasara himself, who is revered in the village. A portrait of his bony silhouette hangs in almost every house and people flock to see him whenever he leads an alms round in the village.

“The more I help, the more I can do because I get back a lot of donations. The donations I get back are greater [than the expenses],” explains the monk, who receives most of the money from middle-class and wealthy people who visit the monastery or send money from overseas. “They know the need of the people here and they want to help.”

Ottamasara now wants to spread the model of the Mercy villages throughout the country.

“It is the duty of the government [to help landless people] but I will also help the government and the people by doing this,” he says. “They may not be rich, but at least they will be able to survive.”

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Source: Al Jazeera