Myanmar clunkers ‘scrapped’ to make room for new cars

Automakers are seeking pole position in possibly one of the world’s fastest growing markets for new and used cars.

YANGON — Mr Mike Shwe Hlaing has a lot full of used SUVs and a potentially huge market to sell them to if Myanmar manages to spread some of the affluence blooming in its biggest city to a poor and still mostly road-less countryside.

One of the quaintest of many anachronisms in Yangon, a city of mouldering colonial villas and gleaming golden pagodas, used to be the decades old Toyotas, Chevys and other clunkers wheezing down its mostly empty roads, a visible sign of sanctions and economic isolation. Now, the streets have filled with a flood of newer used cars, mostly from Japan.

As Myanmar’s reform-minded leadership opens the economy after the former military rulers allowed elections in 2010, automakers are seeking pole positions in what might become one of the world’s fastest growing markets for new and used cars.

Myanmar has only 2.3 million registered vehicles, nearly 2 million of which are motorcycles that are popular in the countryside but banned in Yangon. Most of the 300,000 registered cars are in Yangon and a few other cities.

Mr Hlaing works at Big Boss Brothers Service, one of scores of companies that branched into auto sales after the government revised its regulations in 2011, allowing Myanmar citizens to sell 40 year-old junkers and get import licences for newer, mostly used cars.

Yangon’s streets are lined with used car lots. But Toyota, General Motors, Chinese and Korean automakers are among many that have opened showrooms and are setting up distributorships. They hope to cater to growing numbers of wealthy business people, international agencies and diplomats with the means to pay import and sales taxes that nearly double the sticker prices for imported vehicles.

Cars are still out of reach for most people in Myanmar, where annual incomes average US$200 (S$250). Even a modest used compact from Japan such as a Toyota Corolla costs over US$10,000 once shipping, taxes and other costs are included.

“I’d like to have a car someday,” said Mr Hlaing, who at 22 is starting a career as a car salesman. “But I can’t afford one now.”

A short walk up bustling Kabar Aye Pagoda Road, Toyota’s new showroom has just two vehicles on display: A shiny silver Prado Land Cruiser SUV and a sparkling white HiLux pickup. The dealership plans to eventually also offer Camrys and Corollas, said marketing manager Soe Mar Shwe.

A brand new Prado Land Cruiser costs US$150,000, including the import licence fee and taxes, said Ms Soe. A HiLux pickup sells for US$78,500. At Big Boss Brothers, a 1997 Prado sells for a still-hefty US$35,000.

Across the parking lot, the Toyota service department is buzzing as staff rush to answer phone calls and deal with waiting customers. Toyota set up its service department in Myanmar in 1996 and only opened the Yangon dealership last month.

Though it is just emerging from a half century of economic stagnation, Myanmar is drawing intense interest from automakers: Further down the street is an outlet for Beijing Automotive Group. Further out, a Mazda distributorship. Chevrolet also recently announced an exclusive local distributor.

Online car sales may also be booming. There is no official data, but over a dozen such websites are operating.

There is huge room for growth in a country of over 60 million with only 38 vehicles per 1,000 people. That is far less than the United States, where the ratio is 800 per 1,000 people, or even China, where it is 60 per 1,000.

Ms Soe, who has been with Toyota for 17 years, said she is ready to trade up from her Nissan sedan. Yangon’s traffic is a hassle, she admits, but she still likes driving.

“We cannot afford to have a driver, so we have to drive anyway,” she said.
Because of the abysmal state of public transport in Yangon, a city of 6 million, those who can afford to drive, do. Those who cannot cram into ancient buses perched precariously on huge tires or hitch rides on pickups outfitted with benches and makeshift roofs.

For now, the market is mainly about used cars. Toyota Beltas, Honda Fits and Suzuki Swifts are among the popular smaller-sized cars favoured for navigating packed roads and squeezing into tight parking spaces. For the countryside, high-riding SUVs are the wheels of choice.

Ms Win Lai Aye, manager at parts supplier Aung Thein Than, said sales of lubricants and auto parts have slowed because the newer cars now on the roads require fewer repairs than the ancient vehicles they replaced.

But it is just a matter of time before business picks up. Myanmar’s roads are in a rugged state, with only a fifth paved. The rest are dirt tracks that melt into mud during the five month monsoon season.

“We expect that in two or three years, the demand for parts will rise again,” Ms Win said.

Ms Win’s own new car, a Toyota Mark II, she said proudly, is black, the same colour favoured by government officials in Myanmar. Most of Yangon’s cars are white, since that is the colour Japanese prefer.

Ms Win was thrilled to get the sedan, but she is not so crazy about driving it in Yangon.

“The traffic jams. Everywhere, traffic jams,” she said, shaking her head.

Until recently, the oldest of Myanmar’s clunkers were stacked 20m high in the “car cemetery” north of the city, waiting to be scrapped by a military-run steel plant. Now, they are being kept near a port outside the city, in row after dusty row. Nearby are parked hundreds of newly arrived cars, ambulances and other vehicles waiting to clear customs and hit Yangon’s increasingly jam-packed roads.

Source: AP

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