11 Minutes To Read
Credit: Conner

Yangon, a city tragically halted from its long-awaited development and transformation

11 Minutes To Read

P.Yangon (pseudonym) explores how Yangon faces challenges under the coup.

Yangon had an enormous potential to become a thriving exemplar among ASEAN’s cities. It was a city with a vibrant social fabric, emerging standards of educational opportunities, a hospital environment for business prosperity, home to a highly educated populace, and the will to implement institutional change by the municipal governments. Since the elected government took seats in the parliament in 2011, changes were initiated throughout the country, and Myanmar’s institutional reformation and political transformation were progressing along a democratic path.

Indeed, Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, has undergone rapid urbanization since the country opened up in 2011. Over the 10 year period, there were dramatic changes in Yangon’s development, including the improvement of public space, waste management, transportation, housing, heritage conservation, and public safety.  The Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) led these initiatives despite a limited capacity and budget. There had also been changes nationwide for a greater transformation and improvement in all sectors. Government ministries, supported by international organizations, CSOs, and experts, put a lot of time into strengthening institutional reforms. The education, health, economic, environmental, and other sectors improved nationally. For instance, when COVID-19 hit last year, Myanmar government formed a multi-ministerial, national-level central committee to tackle the disease and essential protective regulations were put in place. The government provided cash handouts for the struggling families with supports from international organizations and CSOs and individual volunteers assisted for the additional health care services under the government’s response guideline. This initiative created a sense that COVID-19 disease was under control by the Myanmar COVID-19 Development Response Plan and all citizens were happy to see such an initiative.

At the same time, Yangon encountered urbanization challenges like other emerging cities in the Global South. Poor housing conditions, lack of policies for informal settlements resulted in forced evictions in satellite townships. Centralized urban planning came along with Yangon’s rapid urbanization and many of these problems have had devastating impacts on people’s lives. These problems have exacerbated since the coup.

On 1st February 2021, the Tatmadaw launched a coup, detaining elected parliament members from the then ruling party, the National League for Democracy. Since the beginning of the coup, urban resilience and development projects have been suspended. Unless democracy returns, Yangon is likely to degenerate into a dying city with increased poverty, escalating urban violence, and misguided government policy.

Myanmar’s Urban Development through Political Landscape

Myanmar has faced various obstacles since gaining independence from the British in 1948. In 1962, General Ne Win staged a coup which ended Myanmar’s post-colonial democratic system. Following the coup, General Ne Win introduced the “Burmese Way of Socialism” which was an economic system to nationalize all the industries except the agriculture  sector.  Two years later, the main part of Myanmar’s economy was nationalized while the state had limited, or no capacity at all, to generate economic activities and provide basic urban services. By the mid-1960s, the ratio of foreign trade to GDP declined from 40 percent in 1960 to 26 percent in 1970. The economic downturn meant that the state could not pay its foreign loans, which led to the UN’s categorization of Myanmar as the Least Developed Country in 1987.

Economic struggles due to the “Burmese Way of Socialism” and the impact of demonetization of kyat, the country’s currency, led to the mass uprising of 1988. After a new government, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), was formed, a concessionary election was held in 1990. However, the results were annulled after the NLD won the election.

There were significant changes to local administration. The development committees were required to report to the Ministry of Home Affairs after the 1988 military coup and formation of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Again, the development committees were moved out of the Ministry of Home Affairs’ General Administration Department (GAD) in 1994 and placed under the newly created Ministry of Border Affairs (MoBA). From 1997 until the change in government in April 2011, the MoBA was responsible for both municipal governance and rural development through its Department of Development Affairs. Since 1962 the administrative positions were filled with military staff who did not have expertise or experience in their new portfolios. Yangon’s cosmopolitan narrative was stripped away as foreigners, who were Indian civil servants and other migrants from Southeast Asia had the actual skills and knowledge were asked to leave. Since then, Myanmar was isolated and disconnected from the outside world.

Misguided Urban Planning

Myanmar was isolated and fell behind other Southeast Asian countries during 1962-2010. Myanmar was one of the least developed countries in the region with a small proportion of the population living in urban areas. As for the increasing population in Yangon, new satellite towns North Okkalapa, South Okkalapa, and Tharkayta were constructed in the late 1950s, and Dagonmyothit, Shwepyitar, and Hlaingtharyar were created shortly after the 1988 uprising by the military government. In 1951, the “Nation Housing, Town and Country Act” started providing social rental housing. Private sector participation was initiated in the 1980s. In the new townships, the land was allocated to the government staff to supplement for their low salaries; however, most government staff did not want to move to those townships because they were far from their workplace, lacked sanitation services, and had no public transport system. At the time, most of the townships in Yangon, including the newly built ones, did not have regular urban service provision, such as drainage and sewage systems. The waste management system was poor, and residents dumped their trash directly into the alleyways. Running water in most townships was not accessible except the downtown areas. 

Viewed from the urban planning perspective, the military government did not know how to plan the city sustainably. They wasted a lot of money, providing housing on the outskirts of the city with inadequate infrastructures and public transportation. Consequently, the informal settlement in satellite townships expanded, land speculation rose, and public green space decreased in the Yangon metropolitan area. The Yangon residents continue to suffer the costs poor urban planning to this day.

The Costs of the Coup on the Urban Landscape

According to the World Bank Economic Monitor, Myanmar’s ongoing political turmoil is severely impacting an economy that has already been weakened by the pandemic in 2020. The economy is expected to contract around 18 percent in Myanmar’s 2021 Fiscal Year (Oct 2020-Sep 2021). After the coup, foreign investors left and the unemployment rate continued to increase. Livelihoods were lost after strikes and factory closures, while fuel prices skyrocketed. Inevitably, this situation has negative impacts on the urban poor in Yangon whose livelihood opportunities have all but disappeared.

Given current economic hardships, people in Myanmar face tremendous pressures from all corners. There is more international visibility on the hardships in the protracted conflict zones on Myanmar’s hinterlands and borders, hence a large amount of international humanitarian funding is directed towards those sites, especially in the ‘IDP’ camps. However, the lack of similar visibility on Myanmar’s urban poor has led to the latter’s continual impoverishment and dispossession. The hardest thing for the urban poor at this moment is to have financial stability with a secure job. Yangon’s living expenses are relatively high, and the cost of housing is usually the biggest expense. Moreover, most working-class families, who do not own a house, need to spend a large portion of their income to pay rent in Yangon.

Political constraints, unstable employment, an unsafe environment, high inflation, and a global pandemic with no healthcare support from the State Administration Council, the current military government, have pushed the urban poor into a vulnerable situation. In some cases, families have to return to their hometowns when they no longer have a job to pay for rent. Since the beginning of the coup, violence has directly affected the industrial suburbs of Hlaing Tharyar, Shwepyithar, and South Dagon, with scores of protesters killed and more than a dozen factories torched. Consequently, operations and international orders were suspended in the large factories invested by Sweden, Japan, Korea, and other foreign countries. Some factories have even closed down permanently.

The Housing Market after the Coup

Until the coup, there were investments from China and Singapore  for the larger housing projects such as Golden City and New Yangon Development Project. Because of the 2016 Condominium Law, foreign companies and individuals were permitted to buy condominiums in Myanmar. Local wealthy Yangonites also speculated on land and condominiums as they also saw this as a thriving long-term investment. Many of the great location closer to travel to the downtown by car and where have a good transport access in Yangon turned into big construction sites starting from 2016, creating thousands of jobs. 

A few weeks after the coup, Singapore’s stock exchange suspended shares in developer Emerging Towns and Cities (ETC) over its Golden City commercial and residential development in Yangon which is built on army land. Within the past six months, land prices and apartments at good locations which have better infrastructures such as car parking, security, public transport, and a safer environment have significantly increased, while the value of kyat has dramatically declined. Additionally, the investors and developers from China, Japan, Singapore, and Korea might pull out if the situation does not improve in the near future.

As foreign investment in the housing market dried up, the rental price in Yangon has fallen compared to 2020. Once I spoke to a homeowner, who said “The rental prices have dropped by 30% to 50% than the normal price, yet it is still difficult to get a lease like one and half years ago.”  A property manager from a real estate company targeted foreign renters expressed a similar concern: “During the pandemic, we still have a hope that things are going to get better after the COVID-19. But with the coup, I am not sure how to operate the business since all the foreigners left Yangon right after the coup. Now we have reduced prices for the locals to find some business opportunities. But not sure how long we can do it like this.”

Photo credit: Conner

When a Home is not a Safe Space

The military government issued an announcement in September ordering homeowners and landlords to provide personal information of their tenants to ward administrators. This reporting system, called “overnight guest registration,” existed in Myanmar under the previous military regime. The regime personnel use this requirement as a pretext to inspect properties in the middle of the night. The system was lifted by the National League for Democracy in 2016. Local media sources indicate that homeowners can lose their properties if they fail to report a tenant to the ward administrators and the tenant who is later found to have carried out an attack against the coup regime. Due to the reporting requirement, landlords fear losing their investments and have been pressuring tenants to comply with the requirements. 

This registration requirement directly affects the majority of the households in Yangon. According to the National Housing White Paper compiled by UN-Habitat in 2018, only 14 percent of Yangon residents can afford to buy homes through the formal housing market. Indeed, most modest-income households do not own a house, and those who can’t afford a house must comply with this policy once they move to another house even if they remain staying in the same township. This creates an extra burden for both homeowners and tenants.

The military authorities blatantly violate safe, secure, and adequate housing rights outlined by the United Nation. Being interrogated by so-called police (soldiers), equipped with deadly weapons, in the middle of the night no doubt causes emotional turbulence. As a result, people in Myanmar are living with constant fears even in their homes.

Forced Evictions

There is also housing pressure for government staff who have joined the  “Civil Disobedience Movement.” Such striking civil servants and their family have been evicted from the government staff housing. The eviction has incentivized some people to return to work as they do not have a place to stay. Being jobless and without a regular source of income, they also could not afford to rent a place. Most of the evicted former civil servants either go back to their hometown or share apartments with their friends or relatives in Yangon. Additionally, several properties owned by those connected to the National Unity Government or the People’s Defense Force have been confiscated by the military government.  

Recently, on 28th October,  more than 1000 houses were forcibly removed near the Pathein-Yangon highway in Hlaingtharyar Township, which is home to thousands of squatters who fled the Ayeyarwady delta region following Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Under the NLD government, more than 250,000 squatter households were issued resident certificates for Yangon Division, and plans were well underway to allow them to eventually get access to low-income housing. However, the military authorities gave eviction notice to the families in the area on 13th October without giving any support for relocation and compensation.

Violence in the Public Space

Though Yangon has fewer public spaces compared to other big cities in the ASEAN, the former democratic government made improvements during their term. Yangon public spaces used to be vibrant with social and business activities before COVID-19 hit. The water festival, the lighting festival, night markets, charity events, Chinese New Year, and art-related events occurred throughout the year in different townships of Yangon, and downtown Yangon was the busiest location for that such activities.

The public spaces in Yangon have been well-used and maintained by YCDC after 2015. Small playgrounds, pocket parks, and seating spaces were elevated in most townships, and it seemed that people spent a longer time at the upgraded public spaces compared to 5 years ago. However, public space restoration projects paused under the military government, and the sector now appears more uncertain than ever.  When I talked to a spokesperson from an architecture firm involved in public space revitalization projects reported a lack of response from the military-led YCDC: “We had already submitted all the requirements to the YCDC and we got support from MP Zin Mar Aung for the paperwork process. The project has been paused because of current political situations. We are planning to carry out the remaining phase 3 and we have already informed a formal letter to the YCDC. But, YCDC still does not respond to our request.”

From 2017 to 2020, participatory placemaking[1] for public space planning was discussed in Yangon as a new way of urban planning. The YCDC allowed public space renovation and construction projects in a creative way. It even engaged closely with the ward administrators to learn and monitor the whole process at the township level. All this positive change was paused when the Myanmar military seized power in February 2021.

Prior to the coup, public spaces were used to gather for festive activities. However, such places turned into massive demonstration areas during the coup. Thousands of people marched together in Yangon’s streets for peaceful protests as the police cracked down on the protestors and put them behind bars. Currently, it is hard to organize protests in Yangon as security forces monitor all intersections in every township. Targeted explosions near police offices, ward offices, government offices, and military informers’ houses in Yangon have become a common occurrence. Before the coup, gazing over the heritage architecture on Merchant Road while walking and meeting up with friends at Strand Road’s night market for a drink could be a perfect plan for Saturday evening. However, the coup changed the narrative of the places by generating insecurity for all Yangonites.

The trajectory of Yangon’s crash course

Yangon city dwellers, particularly the urban poor, have been suffering negative consequences of poor urban planning from 20 years ago. Such consequences include skyrocketed housing prices, increased land speculation, expansion of informal settlements, and growing environmental degradations in Yangon. During the isolation period from 1962 to 1988, military authorities managed urban development projects in a way to create a lucrative business for them. The current military leader Min Aung Hlaing has shown his interest in urban development. During the meeting with the  Naypyidaw City Development Committee, he stated his willingness to see changes in new public transportation in Naypyidaw, complete with a metro rail system and electric buses.

Since the coup, people of Myanmar have tried to cut all the funding that could reach the military by boycotting military-owned businesses, not buying state-run lottery tickets, and refusing to pay any form of taxes. The military government is failing in mobilizing domestic resources because many Yangonites refuse to pay electricity bills, water bills, and income taxes. Therefore, this drastic cut in the city budget will make it harder for the military government to provide municipal services and manage urban operations. The infrastructure maintenance work will be slower for megacities in Myanmar due to budget restraints; consequently, the basic services from the municipal government will be less efficient. Such changes will be less noticeable in smaller cities. However, they will be conspicuous in big cities such as Yangon and Mandalay, which have become the sites of much urban chaos in the post-coup Myanmar.

New sanctions from the UK, EU, and US governments followed by the coup. The unstable political situation and banking crisis have impacted on Myanmar’s economy which has shrunk 18% in 2021 according to an estimate by the World Bank. The IMF projected Myanmar’s 2022 economic growth rate to -0.1%. At the present situation, some foreign companies and some franchisees for foreign food and beverage brands in Yangon are planning to leave Myanmar. With the political instability, economic crisis, and poor governance and development, Yangon will eventually have to deal with high poverty rates, poor legal protection systems, limited economic opportunities with higher living costs, unsafe environment, and continued expansion of informal settlement.

Conclusion

Within the past 10 years, urbanization in Myanmar increased, bringing with its rapid transformations. The former democratic government worked with the UN agencies, international organizations, and the private sector to improve urban services. Right now, it is unclear how the military-led ministries can carry out such actions as millions of people from Myanmar do not accept the military government. If the current trends continue, there will be widespread economic impoverishment, socio-economic degradation, and violence all over the country. In particular, Yangon, which has the largest population and serves as the country’s commercial capital, will face development drawbacks from development. However, the Yangonites are adaptable and will keep their city alive and resilient.

P. Yangon (pseudonym) is a researcher and an urbanist based in Yangon. The author is an advocate for equal housing rights in Myanmar.

 Notes

[1] The essence of participatory placemaking is actions at a hyperlocal level e.g. where citizens focus on a street, park, public square or open space in their neighbourhood. (www.urbact.org)