Motorbikes for Yangon

Despite being the commercial center in the largest country in South East Asia, Yangon is a strange city for one main reason. It is the only city on the continent not to allow motorbikes.

In Vietnam pedestrians in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh compete with pavement space with 100 CC Hondas and Yamahas, and in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur Harley Davidsons and Ducatis occasionally roam the city’s roads.

Even Mandalay has a thriving motorbike industry, with many commuters riding their bikes around the city to get to work and back. Bikes can also be rented in many parts of Myanmar, to both local and foreign visitors.

But the streets of Yangon are quite different. Since the early 2000s, when a high-ranking official was allegedly harassed by a gang of motorcycle riders, motorbikes in Myanmar’s largest city were banned.

And this puts a huge strain on other forms of transport. For example, out of the 2 million people travelling around the city every day just over a million of them rely on the city’s public buses. After hours they rely on privately-run, though illegal, mini-vans.

There are a further 50,000 residents who use the train every day, and the rest have to rely on either taxis or their own forms of transport – either cars or bicycles.

But since the COVID-19 restrictions, and a drastic drop in the number of available buses after Thingyan, many residents have been seeking-out motorbikes to travel around Yangon’s outer suburbs.

YBS buses are not available after 8:00pm, and they have stopped servicing some routes. This is a problem for those who rely on public transport, many motorcycle owners claim.

There is an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 motorcycles in Yangon, though very few of them are officially registered. Many motorbike owners resent the fact that, whilst their motorbikes are prohibited on the city roads, police bikes are allowed.

Why should city officials be allowed to ride, but regular residents are not? It’s clearly a double standard, some owners claim.

“When it comes to catching COVID-19, riding a motorbike is much safer than sitting on a crowded bus with dozens of other people,” Ko Soe Win, a bike owner from South Dagon, said.

“But we have to worry about getting stopped by the police and paying fines when we ride. When it comes to COVID-19, surely we should be allowed to ride our bikes,” he added.

Last month he was stopped by the traffic police, and asked to pay a fine of K30,000.

Motorcycle taxis are a common form of transport for those in the outer suburbs in Yangon, but the city still maintains a ban in most townships.

Ko Soe Win works as a CCTV technician and in his spare time organises meetings with the Yangon Bikers Revolution (YBR) – a group of like-minded motorcyclists who want the city-wide ban on motorbikes overturned.

A year after founding YBR, the group’s membership had mushroomed to over a thousand members. The group creates car stickers supporting fellow bikers in Yangon, and encourages people to display them on their vehicles.

Though the members risk being fined and arrested for breaking city road rules, the group insists on proper safety rules – wearing a helmet and performing regular maintenance to ensure the bikes’ brakes, lights and mirrors are in good order. Members will be suspended if they do not comply.

Ko Soe Win was arrested a year ago, and the police officer threatened to confiscate his Honda motorcycle unless he paid a fine.

“Fortunately, my bike was licensed and he couldn’t threat me,” Win Kyaw Maung said. He used to operate a motorcycle import business, and so was able to show the police his paperwork.

Often the police will plan surprise checks across a township, stopping off at tea shops and houses where motorbikes are parked. They sometimes cite the rising levels of motorbike-related crimes as an excuse.

Police sometimes ask for K50,000, but the amount can vary depending on the value of the motorcycle. Japanese bikes are more expensive, and the police are likely to hold them as collateral when confiscated.

Ko Soe Win and the founding members of YBR are tired of this kind of treatment, and would like more certainty around motorcycle ownership in the city.

“This is really unacceptable. Even after COVID-19, when there was no other way of getting around, we were still punished for riding our bikes,” Win Kyaw Maung, a fellow member of YBR, added.

Yangon is the busiest and most crowded city in the country, and Myanmar’s economic capital. Though the downtown area is well serviced with public transport options, many trains and buses don’t reach the outer suburbs. As a result, people rely much more on motorcycles in those locations – either motorbike taxis for a fee, or their own bikes to ride around the township.

Despite the varying registration and safety laws, the roads of all other ASEAN cities are full of motorbikes. People in metropolitan areas rely on motorbikes to travel to the markets, school and the office.

Honda and Yamaha service centers are dotted around Thailand and Vietnam, providing jobs for thousands of mechanics and retail staff. Prices range from as low as $1,000 for a basic scooter, to tens of thousands of dollars for a 500 CC road bike. The lowest prices are suitable for most commuters in South East Asia, who are able to purchase a new bike easily with a small loan or a few months’ savings.

Riding a motorbike is prohibited in 14 townships across Yangon.

“Motorcycles are essential in places where we can’t afford to buy cars,” Win Kyaw Maung said.

It’s been over 20 years since the ban was introduced. Though the motivation for the ban remains unclear, the official reason is that motorbikes are unsafe. Some supporters of the ban claim that, before the prohibition, some 70 percent of accidents were caused by motorbikes. Others say that motorbike gangs in the city were becoming too unruly.

Even if this was the case, no one really knows why the ban has not been extended to other towns and cities in Myanmar – like Mandalay, which also has its fair share of street crime and traffic accidents.

There remains a very paternalistic view in government circles that motorcycle riders are reckless. But, in actuality, motorbike riders are less likely to harm others in the event of an accident. Car, truck and bus accidents are far more likely to kill people than those involving only motorbikes.

With the right laws for riding and maintaining motorbikes in place, there seems no real reason to maintain the ban, members of the YBR claim.

Though there are no official campaigns to reverse the ban in this year’s election, some bikers would willingly vote for the candidate most supportive of legalising
bikes in Yangon.

Currently, some members of parliament have stated that they would like the ban lifted. Discussions have been held in parliament, but no action has been proposed.

“It is our right to voice express our concerns. Many motorcycle riders in Yangon will support the candidate who changes this law,” Ko Min Naing from YBR said.

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Source : Myanmar Times

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