In front of Thet Naing's shanty in Hlaing Tharyar township on the outskirts of Myanmar's commercial capital Yangon, empty plastic bottles, wastepaper and boxes litter the area. While others see it as an eyesore, he sees it as a form of income and the path to a better life than the one he left behind when he vacated his small village in the Irrawaddy delta
in February in search of a new job. Thet Naing is among tens of thousands of migrant workers who have settled on the Yangon perimeter, forced there out of economic necessity because their work in the seasonal agriculture sector no longer pays enough to make ends meet. "After I arrived here I needed to find a job and the best one that came up was rubbish collector," he told ucanews.com while sitting in a plastic chair in his tiny bamboo hut.
A man cuts grass for cows to graze on next to illegal shanty houses on March 9. (Photo by Htoo Tay Zar/ucanews.com)
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He built it himself and added a thatched roof to keep the rain and other elements at bay after paying the local municipal committee the equivalent of US$70 for permission to temporarily live in the area in Myanmar, which elected a new president in March
. Nowadays he pulls in 10,000 Myanmar kyats a day on average, or US$7.50. He says the most profitable items are the boxes and bottles, many of which can be recycled. "It's just about enough to survive on," said the 25-year-old. "I still have to work hard just to scrape by." His story is common among the legions of migrant workers who caravan their way to this bustling city each year to trade rural poverty for a slight step up the ladder to urban poverty, with all the trappings that implies. Many end up in this township on the city's western edge that has swollen to a population of 700,000. It now ranks as the biggest township in Myanmar and the most densely packed of all the satellite towns that sprang up in the 1980s.
Workers walk and cycle to factories in Hlaing Tharyar township on March 9. (Photo by Htoo Tay Zar/ucanews.com)
Most migrants who wind up here struggle to land contract work despite a series of political and economic reforms having been instituted in 2011 to help ease their plight. They also have to contend with alarming crime rates due to the informal nature of the settlement where new faces can move around with a relatively high degree of anonymity. According to figures provided by the World Bank, the Irrawaddy delta sees the highest level of migration in the country. This began to take off in 2008 in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which claimed over 138,000 lives and destroyed the livelihoods and assets of large numbers of farmers. Many consider it the country's worst natural disaster on record. Central Myanmar's Magway region ranks second in terms of domestic migration. While one in four households in the Irrawaddy delta has a family member working in another part of the country, the comparative ratio here is one in five. Migrant worker, Zin Phyu Hlaing, from central Myanmar, washes a car in Hlaing Tharyar township on Yangon's outskirts. (Photo by Htoo Tay Zar/ucanews.com)
In both cases, over 50 percent make their way to Yangon, whose population is exploding. At 4.5 million, it now houses about 8 percent of Myanmar's 53 million people, ranking it above big cities like Mandalay and Mawlamyine. Meanwhile, migrants with the means and ambition head further afield to countries like Malaysia or the United Arab Emirates. This was not an option for Kyaw Thu, a 43-year-old father of two who migrated from Myaungmya township in the delta to Yangon in 2015. He used to earn US$2 a day as a farmer but now pulls in more than double that as a manual laborer, a lifestyle facilitated by having his parents care for the two kids. "We're still living hand to mouth but we keep faith that our lives will improve under the government of [State Counselor] Aung San Suu Kyi's
government," he told ucanews.com. Myanmar has only recently begun to embrace democracy through peaceful means and hope is now building that the National League for Democracy (NLD) government will create more employment opportunities. It finally took office in March 2016 after two decades of military rule. But critics have also expressed concern it is sliding back to its former ways, with Suu Kyi in particular coming in for heavy criticism due to her silence on the issue of Rohingya refugees
amid claims of persecution by the military, causing hundreds of thousands to flee to Bangladesh. On top of this, Myanmar is battling slow economic growth, constraints on freedom of speech
, unfulfilled electoral promises and a stalled peace process, pundits say. Jennifer has lived in the township for over 20 years. A Catholic and former employee at the United Nations Development Program, she said thousands of young people stream into the area every month looking for work in the garment, shoes and other nascent industries. Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone now ranks among the largest in the country. "Despite the political and economic changes, migrants are still struggling to get by or just survive on a daily basis," said the woman, who declined to provide her surname. "As in many places, the rich get richer and the poor just get poorer." Urbanisation has lagged as a result of the country's isolation during decades of military rule. Some 70 percent of the population still live in the countryside, making it the third-least urbanised country in Southeast Asia. While many have praised the recent democratic reforms and steps to open up its economy, however, gross domestic product growth has started to tail off in the last few years. GDP grew 3.6 percent in 2008, peaked at 8.4 percent in 2013 and dropped to 6.3 percent in 2016, below that of Laos and Bangladesh, according to Myanmar's central bank