Smuggled motorcycles fuel a burgeoning black market
The trade in bikes brought in illegally from Thailand and other neighbouring countries is booming nationwide, including in the former capital, despite a restriction on their sale and use there
Unlike most Southeast Asian cities, Myanmar's former capital of Yangon is remarkably free of whining motorcycles and scooters _ thanks to a gang of thugs and a high-profile case of road rage. The ban was introduced a decade ago when a motorcycle gang known as the Scorpions, made up of young men from families of the elite and which had affiliations with the grandsons of the late dictator Ne Win, ventured near the motor convoy of Vice-Senior General Maung Aye in Yangon.
Myat San, a former political prisoner, said he heard the tale of what came next firsthand from one of the gang members who was detained in the same jail as him.
''They followed the car of Gen Maung Aye's daughter, not the convoy, because that car passed their bikes at high speed,'' Myan San recalled.
''The riders blocked the car without knowing who the owner of the car was and hit the front of it to show their anger at their gang being disrespected. When they realised it was the car of the general's daughter, they just rode away.''
The gang members were later tracked down and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Not long after, the State Peace and Development Council banned motorcycles and scooters from Yangon in 2003.
But despite the crackdown in Yangon, motorcycles are still the most popular form of transport across the country and nationwide sales are climbing. According to official records in 2010, motorcycle accidents accounted for around 33% of road fatalities. Motorcycle dealers say sales have increased by as much as 300% from 2008, according to a report in The Myanmar Times that uses figures from the Central Statistical Organisation. The number of registered motorbikes was 1.6 million in 2008. Within four years, the figure had almost doubled to 3.1 million and accounted for nearly 90% of all registered vehicles on the road in 2012.
However, the figure is bolstered by a large number of unregistered vehicles, known colloquially as ''withouts''.
Without vehicles, both cars and motorbikes, are sourced from the neighbouring countries of China, Thailand and India. Oo Soe, who has been a car dealer for a decade, said he used to bring in unregistered cars from Myawaddy, a town on the Thai-Myanmar border. He drove the cars from Thailand along the Mae Sot-Myawaddy-Phaan Road and paid bribes at checkpoints along the way.
Oo Soe said he stopped the car before each checkpoint and proceeded by motorbike to bribe the officials, usually about 100,000 kyat (3,500 baht), informing them of the model, colour and engine number he was bringing in.
''That's all I had to do,'' he said. ''They shared the bribe with local authorities later and I drive through all the checkpoints without the vehicle being inspected.''
OFF THE BLACK MARKET: Police file reports on confiscated motorcycles which had been stolen in Isan and could have been destined for Myanmar.
Myanmar has been going through rapid and sweeping changes, but accounts from Oo Soe and others indicate the trade in smuggled cars and motorbikes is still in full swing. Than Soe, a resident of Myeik, close to Kawtthaung across the border from Ranong, said: ''Here we don't use bikes from China, only Thailand.''
Motorbike dealers in Myeik smuggle vehicles from Thailand to Myanmar via waterways or by road. If the latter, the smugglers ride the bikes and pass checkpoints by paying bribes. If by sea, vessels carry disassembled motorcycles along the coast from Ranong and the parts are put back together when they reach Myeik.
''The price of a motorcycle smuggled by water is higher than one coming in by road,'' Than Soe told Spectrum.
Last week in Trang province, which borders the Andaman Sea south of Myanmar, police arrested five members of a motorcycle theft gang and confiscated 14 stolen bikes after an investigation into the widespread disappearance of motorcycles from residents in the province. Pol Col Thammanoon Traitippayapong, deputy commander of Trang provincial police, said the seized bikes were Honda and Yamaha models for which there is a high demand on the black market and were destined for sale in neighbouring countries.
Last June, the Myanmar government set a November 2012 deadline for registering unlicensed motorcycles made in China, Thailand, India and Japan, but the passing of the deadline apparently hasn't made a dent in the trade. ''The black market will be going on as long as people want to avoid import taxes. Besides, the price of a 'without' vehicle is much cheaper than what is sold in the showrooms,'' Oo Soe said.
PROSPECTS GOOD FOR BIKE MARKET
Back in Yangon, a salesman at the Nantthar Gone bicycle and spare parts wholesale market, confirmed that selling and riding motorcycles in Yangon is illegal, yet brand new motorcycles made in China can be found in a back corner of the shop. The Chinese motorbikes range in price from 10,000 to 19,000 baht, about half of what motorcycles made in Thailand go for.
''People don't want to buy the expensive Thai motorcycles for riding illegally in the Yangon area,'' said the salesman. But Thai-made motorbikes can be found in showrooms in Bago, a town along Myawaddy-Yangon road only 70km from Yangon.
Some are wondering how much longer the ban in the former capital will be enforced. The government's sudden policy change on car imports and a vehicle substitution policy for old cars in 2011 led to a rapid increase in the number of cars on the roads. A local weekly journal reported that more than 150,000 cars were permitted for import within 15 months. City dwellers are now faced with unprecedented heavy traffic and at times it is even getting difficult to find a parking space in central Yangon. Motorbikes look like a good alternative to some people, but others are strongly opposed to lifting the ban.
A taxi driver said: ''We can hardly deal with the heavy traffic now, if the government lifts the ban we won't be able to handle all the motorcyclists on the road. We [taxi drivers] will raise our voices against it if the government allows motorcycles again in Yangon.'' The taxi driver said he was concerned that there would be more accidents if motorbikes are permitted on city roads.
On the other hand, at least some some car dealers in Yangon are eager to branch out and sell motorcycles. At big showrooms along main roads dealers compete with ever-changing sales promotions, but sales have levelled off despite the government's initiatives.
One dealer, Kyaw Gyi, said the ''market for motorcycles is better than for cars because motorcycles are used across the countryside''. He said the car market is limited for dealers due to different factors, such as licensing, import tax and the huge investment needed for showroom rental.
''Dealers need to invest a minimum of about US$15,000 (455,000 baht) a month to rent a parking space on a main road in Yangon. It's a nightmare,'' said Kyaw Gyi.
The motorcycle market extends far into remote areas where the roads are rough. Motorbikes are considered an essential mode of transport in many villages in rural areas of Myanmar. The market is dominated by Chinese brands such as Kenbo, Luojia, Yinxing and many others and the price is affordable for the villagers, at less than half that of Japanese brands such as Honda or Yamaha.
''If people can buy a Japanese brand for the same price as a China-made bike, there will be a huge market,'' said Kyaw Gyi.
Not surprisingly, Japanese vehicle makers are keeping their eyes on the motorcycle market in Myanmar. Honda Motor Company and Yamaha Thailand are doing market surveys with a view to establishing a plant to produce motorcycles in Myanmar, according to a Japan Times report in August. Work is also under way by Japanese carmakers to set up offices in Yangon. Hitachi Transport System and Nippon Express Company have already established their offices in affiliation with local business partners.
Not all riders in Myanmar are ready to switch to Japanese bikes, however. People living in the countryside continue to buy their Chinese motorcycles for low prices and are not much concerned with licensing and registration. Win Naing Saw uses a Chinese bike in the central Myanmar town of Magway, and says he's happy with it.
''Chinese bikes are as strong as Japanese brands. I can ride carrying three passengers or heavy loads. I can go on any rough road with this bike. It is very easy to find spare parts as well.''
Meanwhile, members of the Scorpion gang can be seen back in Yangon, having been given amnesties in 2011 after almost a decade in prison.
But as long as the ban they are directly responsible for remains in effect, their big US-made Harley Davidsons won't be seen racing around town and disturbing the peace.
BEST THINGS ON TWO WHEELS: Motorcycles are the most popular mode of transport in the Myanmar countryside, as seen here in Nwar Htoe Gyi.
About the author
Writer: Mon Mon Myat