Frozen out: Tenants face housing discrimination

New research and anecdotal reports suggest that some owners are refusing to rent or sell to Muslims, Chinese and other minority groups.


ON NOVEMBER 17, interfaith group Smile Education presented the results of an unusual investigation.

“Discrimination upon minorities for renting and selling houses” alleged that in the Kyauk Myaung area of Tarmwe Township residents, developers and ward officials were colluding to keep out minority groups, particularly Muslims.

The report was based on interviews with 15 people, including five Muslims who said they had been denied housing on the basis of their religion. The other interviewees included developers, a government official, civil society members and religious leaders.

Smile Education executive director U Myo Win said the investigation focused on Kyauk Myaung because the group had received complaints about discrimination in that area, which is predominantly Buddhist but has a sizeable Muslim population.

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“Among Muslims, Kyauk Myaung is known as a Buddhist area,” he said. “Knowing that there were some cases [of discrimination] there, we conducted this survey.”

He said the interviews had confirmed that there was an organised effort to keep Muslims from moving into the neighbourhood.

“We believe that in a democratic country discrimination, such as racism, is a barrier for further development. If we really want to become a genuine democracy the authorities need to follow the law,” Myo Win said at the press conference.

Ma May Thiri Khin, a project officer with Smile, said the study had been confined to Kyauk Myaung because of a lack of resources; initially they had also hoped to survey Thaketa and Dawbon, where a similar practice is said to take place.

“We just want people to follow the law. We are allowed to live in that area,” she said.

A practising Muslim, May Thiri Khin said she had experienced similar discrimination when she tried to stay in a hostel near downtown Yangon shortly after the Kyauk Myaung investigation was completed.

“I spoke on the phone to the owner and told him I was coming. But once he opened the door and saw me, he shut it again in my face,” she said.

Sai Khung Noung, chair of Yangon Region Real Estate Entrepreneurs Association, said that discrimination was “rampant” in the real estate sector, with some landlords reluctant to rent or even sell homes to Muslims or mainland Chinese.

He said discrimination against Muslims had worsened noticeably after communal conflict erupted in 2012.

The bias against Chinese tenants is because of perceptions that they are more likely to bring prostitutes to rental houses, he said. “The property owners dislike their lifestyle because if a tenant does this it causes a problem within the community for the landlord.”

He said property agents were unlikely to be biased against religious or ethnic minorities because it would reduce their chances of closing a deal. “They can’t help it if the landlord discriminates against potential tenants and not all landlords do. It just depends on the individual pwmer, and also the ward administrators,” he said. “But one thing is sure – it is not in line with the constitution.”

The constitution addresses discrimination in chapter eight, “Fundamental Rights and Duties of the Citizens.” Section 348 of the constitution states that the union “shall not discriminate any citizen of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, based on race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex and wealth”. 

Meanwhile, section 355 assures that “every citizen shall have the right to settle and reside in any place within the Republic of the Union of Myanmar according to law”.

However, there appears to be no law to enforce these anti-discrimination provisions.

And discrimination runs deeper than just a reluctance to rent to Muslims and Chinese. Some landlords, for example, have also refused to rent to Westerners because of perceptions it will lead to greater government scrutiny – possibly a hangover from the time of the military regime.

At Smile Education’s press conference, one attendee said discrimination was not just based on ethnicity or religion.

“I myself have faced that discrimination when renting a house because I am from a political background. The owners told me, if you are still a politician, we can’t rent the house to you,” she said.

Another woman participant related her own experience, saying that it was common for landlords to refuse to rent to Chin or Rakhine people because of perceptions they have large families.

But U Nay Min Thu, managing director of the iMyanmarhouse real estate website, said he had “never heard” of such kind of discrimination in the real estate industry. If it is occurring, the government should address the problem, he added.

“If there is discrimination between ethnic and religious groups in regard to any issue, the government needs to enact a law to protect people’s rights,” he said.

When Frontier visited Kyauk Myaung recently to speak to Buddhist and Muslim residents, most said they had not directly experienced landlords discriminating against tenants based on their religion or ethnicity.

“I have heard it occurs around Kyauk Myaung, but I have no experience of it and I don’t know of any friends who have had that problem either,” said a Muslim resident, U Tin Myint.

Residents instead told Frontier that they co-existed peacefully and the area had a friendly atmosphere, with neighbours of all ethnicities and religions looking out for each other.

“We do not have that kind of problem here,” insisted one Muslim woman.

This article originally appeared in Property Insight, a Frontier special report on the Myanmar property market, on December 15. Top photo: A woman walks in front of a sign that says ‘Apartments for rent’. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe / Frontier)

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