Cyclone-stricken villages in Rakhine turning into ghost towns
SEVEN years after Cyclone Giri battered Pauktaw township in Rakhine State, the area has not recovered from the devastation and people are trying to move to other places to start new lives.
Pauktaw, a town in the Phayone Kar archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, has lost fish in its rivers and creeks, depriving fisherfolk of their livelihoods.
Since 2012, villagers in Pauktaw and other islands in the Phayone Kar archipelago have been abandoning their homes in search of a more friendly environment where they can engage in gainful employment, according to village heads in central Phayone Kar Island.
U Tun Aung Kyaw, 51, a fisherman and resident of Myint Gar Tit village on Pyayone Kar Island, which is a part of Pauktaw township, is upset that his two sons had to go work in Thailand to help feed their family. His first son left for Thailand three years ago, his second son followed a year later.
He is still taking care of his wife and five other children and his income from fishing can hardly sustain their daily needs.
“Both my sons want to stay with us,” U Tun Aung Kyaw said. “But they have to live there because we are facing a crisis here.”
“They are not happy there. They want to come back home” he said, his voice cracking and tears welling in his eyes.
U Tun Aung Kyaw said he has gone fishing at sea as there are more fish there and he can earn an average K200,000 (US$150) per month, but the fishing season at sea lasts only five months, so for seven months he is jobless.
“During this period, I have no income,” he told The Myanmar Times last week. “We survive through the help of my sons. When we run out of money, we pawn some of our possessions.”
“Actually, my sons planned to come back this year, but they have had to stay there one more year since we need money to hold with novice donations and to establish our own business,” he said.
Myint Gar Tit village, at the edge of Phayone Kar Island, is nearest to mainland Pauktaw and Sittwe townships. There are 183 households and 800 people living in the village, and its main business is fishing in the rivers and creeks that meet the sea.
People here who work in fishing also work as casual labourers in the agriculture sector and other business when they are out of jobs during the non fishing season.
But the migration rate of the villagers had been increasing because of fewer jobs in the aftermath of Cyclone Giri.
Most villagers went to Thailand, China and Malaysia to work and some migrate to Hpakant township in Kachin State to look for jade at the jade mines, said U Ohm Shwe Maung, village head of Myint Gar Thit Village.
U Sein Hla Maw, head of other eight villages on the Phayone Kar Island, said the paddy farming businesses have run out of casual labour as many people have left the island.
“Before the cyclone, we didn’t need to search for labourers. There were plenty of causal labourers around,” he said. “Now, we don’t have enough labour. We have to use machine in our agriculture business. It is very expensive to hire the machines and engine drivers.”
U Sein Hla Maw, who tills about 40 acres of paddy fields, said farmers do not profit much during the harvest season because of the high cost of renting farm machines.
Daw Saw Khin Aye, 40, a resident of Taung Chaung Village who owns about 12 acres of paddy fields, said her family might have to leave the village soon.
“Now, we lend our paddy fields to others. We couldn’t run our paddy agriculture business as we couldn’t find labourers. We will be leaving the village soon,” she said. “We don’t want to live here because we are not okay here.”
She said that she and her three children will be moving to Hpakant township in Kachin State where her husband works as jade trader.
Her husband left the village after the family sold out the prawn husbandry pool. Now, her husband is searching a house to buy and live in Hpakant because the jade trade business there is going well.
U Sein Hla Maw said that 50 percent of villagers in his villages have migrated to other regions and abroad. There are many empty houses at his villages left behnd by those who migrated.
Ma Hla Hla Yi, 34, from Lay Hnyin Thar Village in the deeper part of the Phayone Kar Island, said she hopes to take her family to Kachin where her husband is staying.
“We make our living by catching crabs,” she said. “But my husband went to Kachin last month to search the jade because we do not have enough income.”
He couldn’t send back money till now. Now, I live here with my three children and sell fried snacks. I earn only between K1000 and K2000 per day,” she added.
“Almost all male villagers who are over ages of 18 are out of away from village,” said U Maung Tin Myint, head of Lay Hnyin Thar Village. “Only women, children and the old people are here.”
The main business of the villagers is searching for crabs in rivers and creeks, some own crab-farming pools and some plant rice paddy and peppers.
“No government officials reached here,” he said. “MPS come here only during election period. After that they have not visited our village anymore.”
Worse, there are no ongoing government development projects in Phayone Kar Island except for some small livelihood projects, the chieftains of the villages said.
They said that they badly need electricity supply and they also need a well-paved road that will link villages in the island.
Aung Kyaw Htwe, state MP from Arakan National Party and representative of Pauktaw township, admitted the state government have not provided enough for the development of the island.
“We have not been provided enough (fund by the national government),” he said. “The budget we have receive is very little.”
He also said that K142 billion of Rakhine State government budget is only for the funding of some infrastructure projects in the state
Aung Kyaw Htwe said migration is not only happening to Pauktaw township but throughout the whole of Rakhine.
He said government and businessmen must cooperate closely in order to develop industrial zones that will host factories to keep the people from migrating out of Rakhine.
The Tat Lan Programme, a joint project of humanitarian groups – International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, Oxfam, Better Life Organization and CARE, are currently funding a $38 million project called Livelihood and Food Security Trust Fund aimed at augmenting the income of people in Rakhine.
Some its projects are in the areas of community development, gender equality, infrastructure, social protection, nutrition, livelihood programmes, and others.
The six-year project, which started in 2013, covers the villages in the townships of Minpyar, Myaypon, Pauktaw and Kyaukphy.
“Among the reasons why families leave is the growing hardship they are facing in their villages,” Jennifer M. Machintyre, communication coordinator of Tat Lan. “They told us their lives are much better migrating than staying in their villages. People are happy at the places they migrate.”
She said the most important point is for the government to have communication with the people in the communities, listen to their concerns and give them as much support as it can.
‘Both my sons want to stay with us. But they have to live [and work in Thailand] because we are facing a crisis here. They are not happy there. They want to come back home.’