Kyu kyaw—Burmese term for slum and informal settlements—have existed as far back as early 1980s, but their numbers have greatly increased due to the influx of refugees from the 2008 Cyclone Nargis that devastated much of the delta region in the south of Myanmar. Approximately 85,000 dead and millions were made homeless. With it, around 143,000 survivors moved northward to Yangon to resettle. Many of these people were originally farmers, fishermen and animal herders; the type of vocation that, in the dense urban context, lacks its equivalent for its rootedness in sprawling fertile land and water body.
Some communities, such as the Bo Aung Kyaw community (named after the street that runs through the settlement), did manage to find some land to continue to farm. Not for long, though, as these lands were privately acquired and turned into garment factories. Farms dwindled when some residents turn to industrialized skill—builders and factory workers—to survive, while others work as petty traders or remain unemployed. As both the settlement and the factories mushroomed, I sense a kind of symbiosis. The urban morphology has nominally embraced the factory as evident in the prevalent use of blue corrugated iron sheets and the spatial orientation where many of the houses face directly towards the factories. The presence of the settlement presents a continuous stream of activity, which in turns creates of sense of safety and security for the area. The small shops also offer affordable meals to the factory workers in a city where the daily minimum wage is 3,600 Kyat (approx. 2.5 USD). During major celebrations, factories partake in the festive mood by giving some money around. Is there a positive relationship? “Not with the bosses,” answered a community elder, alluding to their more positive reception towards the factory workers.
These issues in kyu kyaw reflect the broader condition of the city. I ran a workshop on such topic, where the 26 participants (comprised of community leaders, architecture students and practicing architects) identified the primary issues that present significant barriers to making a more livable city. These issues are lack of access to basic services (including electricity and clean water), flooding, eviction and land rights, waste management, traffic and transit, and an increase in population. After spending a couple of hours in further discussion, nearly all agreed that all six issues lead to one: land rights.
The land ownership system in Myanmar is a familiar one. The problem is the perceived conflation between the types, particularly between state and government land. The former is all land in the country that lacks any formal title, which includes farms and fishing regions scattered throughout Myanmar, while the latter requires proof of ownership and is used to facilitate the functioning of the government. When they appear to be one and the same, the government—as an entity that wields actual power—is able to seize lands as they see fit.
A Performative Eviction
Of course, the poor occupies these vague territories both in the rural areas and the fringes of the city, which, evidently, have continued to be seized and converted into commercial and industrial purposes. As recounted by a community elder, when eviction happens “it tends to be massive,” and occurs in the interval of 5 to 10 years. What happens in between, however, is where things get interesting: in order to keep the façade of stability, some evictions must continue to happen. But carrying out an actual eviction is cumbersome, particularly in the face of mounting resistance and potential disorder. Equipped with knowing when the police will come to evict, residents dismantled their house and left the settlement for a few hours to ‘disappear,’ carrying with them just the basic necessity for the duration. Sometimes they will even hire people from neighbouring kyu kyaw to help dismantle. The police will come and occupy the settlement for a few hours, then leave. I inquired about what happened to the area. “We came home and rebuilt the settlement on the same site,” answered an elder.
In recent years the government has stopped sending in the police and instead used a warning letter to inform about impending eviction. “But,” Keh Zer, a community organiser, quickly noted, “they always do this during rainy season, in which residents will plead that it is difficult to move now, and that they will do so immediately during the dry season.” Which, of course, never materialized. It will remain unresolved, that is, until the next rainy season where the same story repeats.
So is it really a performance of some sort, notwithstanding the unsolved issue of land tenure and lingering threat of eviction, that both the government and the residents must partake in? “Not when the government really needs the land. At that time, the real eviction will take place.”
Recently, in 2017 the federal government has finally recognized the existence of kyu kyaw and their residents. In addition to a personal national identity card, a kyu kyaw resident card is issued to each family that includes information such as the name of the head of the family and the location of their house. Just like the national ID card, there is no immediate benefit in having one for there is no provision of any kind of social security such as free healthcare. If anything, it may help in reducing the black market for the borrowing of ID card to apply for jobs, which can run as high as 10,000 Kyat per job application.
What it certainly does, however, presents a real quantification—a number—of the identity of these kyu kyaw residents. My curiosity is affixed to the experience of many other developing cities: the political class will do anything during election times for the sizable voting block of the urban poor. When asked about this, Marry, a community civil engineer, underscores that Myanmar is in the process of gaining greater political and governmental transparency since the election in 2015 where the country saw a democratic shift that propelled its opposition leader, Aung San Su Kyi, into power. Her explanation of the shift from the authoritarian system into a democratic one gave me the impression that it suggests the surfacing volatility of democracy: the emergence of a new voting block to be seduced and manipulated. Perhaps it is just cynicism on my part.
One of the biggest evidences of the struggle in reforming the field of housing. Steven, a professional affiliated to Médecins Sans Frontières, indicated that the government has to build approximately 100,000 new housing units each year to cover the existing demand, a stress that Cyclone Nargis has further contributed to. I visited a series of ‘low-cost’ housing in Shwe Lim Pahn area where there were at least eight four-storey apartments, each with 24 units, that seemed to be completely empty. These apartments are built on government land by private contractors under the auspice of the housing agency. During our visit, a West-facing show unit was presented to us by a lady who also happens to live in it. It was a bare unit measuring 6 x 9m with 1.2 x 2m bathroom inside. I must admit, the combination of the emptiness and a generous afternoon light makes for a spacious room. I inquired whether anyone has lived in any of these blocks since they were completed a few years ago. “None,” she replied, and revealed that these units never reached its intended target, the low income, and have instead been purchased by the wealthier residents of Yangon upon its release in the market.
Though at the design level, in Yangon the slab housing typology is as tried and tested as they come: one can easily see the numerous four to six storey apartments (as they are called when it uses no lift, and ‘condominium’ when there is) that fill the city housing stock. The wide variety of the façade treatment suggests that these blocks have been well settled in and have perhaps gone through some renovation. Most that I saw were located in and near the city centres and have a strong access to various centres of activity and public transit. I couldn’t find the data on the type of tenure these apartment residents have due to my limited time in the city, but I’d be curious as to the level of tenure security it provides.
I saw no kyu kyaw in these city centres—or perhaps they take a different form? Nevertheless, houses in city fringe kyu kyaw are small, measuring roughly 4 x 6m, inclusive of a bedroom, storage, a kitchen, and a living room. Toilets are shared with other house. For some residents, they extend their unit further back into whatever land available. Nearly all of them are built rather shoddily, with most covered in thatched palm leaves and a few use the blue iron sheets for their roof. However, some self-upgrading seem to have happened in at least two occasions. The first is the making of a ditch to mitigate flooding caused by heavy rainfall. The second is a beautiful façade renovation that keeps the kyu kyaw looking clean and tidy, that, as I was told, was inspired after seeing a renovated kampung in Jakarta. The façade is a series of split bamboos fence 1.6m high that runs nearly uninterrupted, saves for house entrances, for 20 houses. These two self-upgrades were collectively financed.
Viability of Further Upgrading
I was invited to Yangon to gain an understanding of how informal settlements in the city operate and to share some lessons learned from an upgrading that I took a part in in a kampung in Jakarta. While the idea is to further the discussion and to stimulate some actions, at this stage I could only help investigate in which way community groups and outside groups, such as architects, could work together to come up with a resolution to the fragile tenure that the kyu kyaw are currently in. Some physical truths may need to be accepted: a kyu kyaw sit on a garbage filled water body while another sit on gas pipeline. The desire to do something was visible, but we all soon realised that if there is one thing to be learned from successful bottom-up upgrading is that you can’t do it alone and you must work together not only for the sharing of resources and skills, but for a shared vision as well.
“There are many things that we haven’t thought about,” said Keh Zer, who looks weary but remain spirited after showing us the city, “but I’m glad that there is a possibility to continue.”
Kamil adalah eks-koordinator Architecture Sans Frontières Indonesia dan direktur studio desain/riset pppooolll. Kamil telah memenangkan beberapa penghargaan arsitektur, terakhir dari LafargeHolcim Award 2017 dan ASF-INT Award 2017, dan saat ini sedang menangani sebuah riset panjang bersama University of Melbourne untuk menginvestigasi kontestasi spasial-politik di area bantaran sungai.