Myanmar’s Fans of Right-Hand Cars Feel Wronged by State Ban

YANGON, Myanmar—Driving a car here is like waiting for an accident to happen. More than nine out of 10 cars in Myanmar are right-hand drive, as they are in Britain and Japan, but the cars drive on the right-hand side of the road as they do in the U.S. That combination occurs as in few other places.

Drivers are perched toward the curb, instead of the center of the road, and can’t easily judge when to overtake. Some corners are taken blind, while buses often unload passengers in the middle of the street.

“I have to use the horn so people around the other side know I’m coming,” said Aung Thu, a veteran Yangon cabbie.
People here can’t get enough of them, though, and many are rushing to buy Japanese-made clunkers before a government ban on imports of right-hand-drive cars takes effect in the new year.

The reason? Motorists prefer them to the left-hand-drive Chinese and Korean cars the government wants them to buy.

“They cost more and there are fewer spare parts,” said Thu Thu, who was kicking the tires during a recent visit to a used-car lot in Yangon with his wife and son. One of the cars that caught his eye was a 2013 Toyota Corolla, right-hand drive, of course. Since the government announced its import ban at the end of November, the price had risen to $16,000 from $10,000, after including hefty import taxes.

“It’s expensive but I fear prices could rise even more once the import ban takes effect,” said Mr. Thu Thu, polishing his wire-rimmed glasses on his green sarong.

Soe Tun, who heads the Myanmar Automobile Manufacturer and Distributor Association, said the sticker price on a car has gone up about 20% on average since the ban was announced and could ultimately double once the new rules kick in.

The unpredictability buyers face, he said, is symptomatic of how the economy is still largely guided by the heavy hand of the state five years after the military began ceding power to civilian leaders, including the current de facto head of government, the former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi.

“How is anyone supposed to come up with a business plan when we don’t know how much it’s going to cost to move things around?” Mr. Soe Tun said. “Nobody knows what’s going on,” he said, noting that the regulatory uncertainty is deterring foreign investors.

Official government statistics show foreign-direct investment fell $650 million to $3.29 billion in April through November, compared with $3.94 billion in the same period a year earlier.

Once known as Burma, this country has long gone back and forth on what side of the road to drive on or where to place the steering wheel. Cars in the former British colony drove on the left until the 1970s, when then-dictator Ne Win decreed that henceforth everyone would drive on the right.

No one really knows why. Some of Ne Win’s other innovations, such as introducing bank notes in denominations of his lucky number, nine, were said to have been made on the advice of his astrologers.

Western sanctions during the years of military dictatorship, meanwhile, blocked Myanmar’s access to suitable left-hand-drive imports from Europe or the U.S., forcing the country to turn to Japan, which produces them in the right-hand-drive format.

Other countries have wrestled with the question of where to place the steering wheel or which side to drive on.
In the early hours of Sept. 7, 2009, Samoa switched from driving on the right to driving on the left, as is the custom in its two biggest trading partners, New Zealand and Australia.

The Japanese island of Okinawa, home to U.S. military bases, became right-hand drive during the American occupation after World War II and only joined the rest of the country in driving on the left in 1978.

The U.S. was also confused for a while about what it wanted to do. Ford Motor Co., for instance, made right-hand-drive cars until 1908.

Some people in Myanmar sense ulterior motives for the government’s rule change. A few rows down from Mr. Thu Thu at the used-car lot, Aung Aung, a university student, speculated that while the government says the measure is to improve road safety, its true purpose is to push prices higher and slow the influx of new cars causing traffic jams on Yangon’s potholed streets. More than 500,000 cars were imported from Japan over the past four years—most of which ended up in Yangon.

For others, the new rules are an affront to their right to buy whatever they want after decades of military rule and economic sanctions.

“We should have the freedom to choose, and if they choose a right-hand-drive car that’s fine,” said Tin Maung Hlaing, managing director at local car dealer Evergreen Autos, as he popped the hood on a red right-hand drive 2013 Honda at his showroom. “People are used to them by now.”

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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