Riding around with worries

On a Sunday and public holidays, the streets in front of the Hlaing Tharyar council office buildings are quiet and empty.

U Htay Hlaing, aged 63, sits on his motorbike waiting to give his passengers a ride back home. Last year he converted his motorbike into a trishaw, which he uses to ferry people around the neighbourhood.

He is always careful not to attract the eyes of the traffic police, whether he even rides the bike or not. For nearly two decades now, motorbikes have been banned in Myanmar’s largest and most congested city. That means owning them, and not just riding.

U Htay Hlaing is mindful of this fact, and tries to avoid the main roads of Hlaing Tharyar whilst riding his trishaw motorbike.

“This is my old bike, which I modified and made it into a trishaw about 8 months ago. It provides me with a decent living, but the problem is that it’s prohibited. When I ride around, I’m always worried about being stopped or fined by the traffic police,” U Htay Hlaing told Metro.

U Htay Hlaing and his family, including two children, moved to Yangon 7 years ago. He found it hard to support his family in their native town in the Ayerwaddy Division, saying that he moved to Yangon to find a better-paying job.

Many of the farmers from the region have adopted mechanisation for tilling and harvesting, which has increased productivity and lowered prices, but left many out of work. Some farmers like U Htay Hlaing have decided to leave the country and seek new opportunities in the city.

U Htay Hlaing said that he initially worked on a construction site when their family first arrived in Yangon, and his two children worked at a factory in Hlaing Tharyar’s industrial zone.

As the labouring work dried up he decided to renovate his motorbike, and make good use of it. With a small amount of savings, he added a frame around the chassis and fashioned a roof to his trishaw. With the frame in place, a large seat was added for his customers to ride in comfort.

“Even though my children work, we don’t really have enough money to cover all of our costs. I decided to make good use of my bike, to see if we could make a bit extra to help pay the bills,” he said.

Working as a trishaw driver his income is around K10,000 per day, which doesn’t include maintenance and fuel costs. U Htay Hlaing says that the job that suits him better than construction work, given his aging body makes it hard to carry around bricks and equipment all day.

Despite being a common occupation throughout the rest of country, what U Htay Hlaing does in Yangon is illegal.

The exact reason for the ban is unclear, but rumors suggest that one of the senior generals decided to banish all motorbikes in the city when he was impeded by an unruly motorcyclist.

That was in the early 2000s, and the city hasn’t been the same since – with increasing traffic problems, caused by a dramatic increase in cars on the roads in recent years, city residents are forced to commute either by bus or by taxi. Even those with cars find it difficult to park in Yangon’s cluttered and narrow side-streets.

Despite the political reforms under former president U Thein Sein, and the current government led by National League for Democracy (NLD), the ban on motorbikes continues.

Out of a total of 45 townships across Yangon, only 14 are permitted motorcycles and electric bikes.

The only rationale given by the current Yangon Region Government is that motorbikes are blamed as the cause of a high number of accidents and crimes.

664 reported accidents were reported in the Yangon Region in 2018, with 184 deaths and 894 injuries – according to Daw Nilar Kyaw, who spoke at a parliamentary meeting held in July.

In her speech she added there were already 265 reported motorcycle-related accidents in the first five months of 2019. 51 crimes were also reported involving motorbikes, including 2 murders and 43 robberies last year.

These data are used to justify the ban.

“We try to raise awareness around people not riding motorbikes in 31 townships in Yangon. We alsoarrest those who don’t follow the rules,” minister Daw Nilar Kyaw said.

But the data are often cited in such a way without any context. There is no comparison, for instance, with data on motorcycle accidents in other parts of the country.

Early last year The Myanmar Times reported that Mandalay, which has a much smaller population than Yangon, recorded a massive 22,519 motorcycle accidents in the year 2017 – thirty times higher than Yangon

The definition of a reported accident is never discussed either.

“I can’t agree with the allegation that crimes occur as the result of motorbikes. Crimes occur without motorbikes, and with cars. Some criminalsdo use motorbikes, but crimes also result from weak policing,” said Ko Win Kyaw Maung, executive member of the Yangon Biker Revolution Group.

The Group, which is located in South Dagon, is asking the Yangon Region government to permit motorbikes on the city’s roads again, and to set up necessary rules and regulations for motorcyclists.

Most of Yangon’s motorcyclists ride around the suburban areas of the city, but banning and arresting those users remains difficult given that the boundaries between townships can be blurry.

Politicians’ arguments for the ban also cite motorbike crime.

“Preventing robberies and street crime is the job of the police force. Pick-pocketing is very common on public buses, but no one is blaming this kind of theft on public transport. Who is responsible for those criminal cases? There are no public buses here after 8pm,” said U Aye Kyaw aged 52, who is a motorcycle taxi driver.

Like U Htay Hlaing, U Aye Kyaw works as a motorcycle taxi driver near the Yoneshae bus stop in Hlaing Tharyar Township, and also migrated from the Ayerwaddy Division in search of work.

He said that most of the workers in the township relied on motorcycle taxis, given that the nearest bus stops were too far away.

In Hlaing Tharyar Township the police arrest motorbike owners from time to time, whether they have a license or not. Sometimes their bikes are confiscated, and the owners charged K140,000 to retrieve them.

“People use motorbikes without knowing the road rules. The local authority doesn’t enforce them either, and some thieves use unregistered bikes,” said Ko Win Kyaw Maung, from the Yangon Biker Revolution.

He said that robbery cases can easily be investigated by the police if those motorbikes had been licensed, and identified with number plates.

“There should be a proper registration system for motorbikes, and illegally owned bikes should not be permitted,” said MP U Myat Min Thu from Hlaing Tharyar Township.

He agreed that criminals would often use motorbikes to rob pedestrians and snatch bags, but said that they also offered people more advantages than disadvantages.

“I always feel uneasy about my job, and I don’t like being labelled a thief. I am always worried about being caught by the traffic police,” said U Htay Hlaing.

Source: Myanmar Times

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