If you ask Yangon residents why the city’s bars and restaurants close at 11pm, they will likely cite at least one of several theories, some of which have alternatively been dismissed and corroborated by different local authorities.
The first theory that municipal authorities imposed the curfew following an incident in May in which an American citizen was sexually assaulted by a taxi driver after exiting a bar frequented by foreigners. On May 21, the American embassy released a security notice to US citizens in Yangon, offering them a series of six tips for avoiding unwanted encounters with taxi drivers.
Following the list of tips, however, the notice says: “Burma continues to be a safe country to visit. The recent incidents are not typical.” So is the crackdown on Yangon’s nightlife, which some bar owners say has brought about a 40 percent slump in their profits, a safety measure against something that rarely happens?
This question, and the observation that beer stations, KTV joints and nightclubs continued to stay open in the months following the imposition of the curfew on expat haunts, has led some to believe that the curfew is a buffer against instability in the run-up to Myanmar’s national election. Perhaps, the sceptics say, the assault incident was a pretext for imposing tighter social control on the people of Myanmar’s largest city.
Such scepticism is warranted. Back in July, The Myanmar Times quoted Yangon Region government advisor U Aung Kyaw Soe as saying neither explanation for the curfew was valid and that the recent enforcement of the closing time is not the result of any new laws.
“Clubs and bars are allowed to open until 11pm and no later. This hasn’t changed – clubs and bars have not been ordered to close early because the election is drawing near, or because of an incident,” the advisor told The Myanmar Times.
However, U Maung Naing, the head of the Mayangon Township Administration Office, who is responsible for the enforcement of the curfew in his the township, suggested the opposite.
“The authorities have enforced the law starting in September in an attempt to tighten up security in the region as the election draws near,” he told The Global New Light of Myanmar.
But wait. What happened in September? Haven’t bars had to close at 11pm since May?
One owner of a Yangon bar that is popular among expats offered an explanation. (He declined to be identified in this article.)
“Expat bars were targeted after the sexual assault incident in May. Nightclubs and other locally oriented bars have only been subject to the curfew over the last couple months,” he said.
The bar owner also mentioned that locally owned bars and nightclubs were subject to the curfew only after a violent incident that took place at DJ Bar, a popular nightclub, and after recent spikes in the city’s methamphetamine trade.
U Maung Naing, however, denied that the curfew was related to any specific crimes in Yangon.
Also puzzling is that fact that while beer stations around the city have begun closing, or at least turning off their lights, at 11pm, big clubs like DJ Bar remain open hours past that.
U Maung Naing shed some light on this discrepancy.
“The curfew affects all licenced bars, including foreigner bars and restaurants, because they are legal. For example, KTV establishments must follow the curfew order because they have been granted licences by the authorities to operate their businesses. But, for massage businesses and nightclubs, they have no licences and are [technically] illegal,” the Mayangon Township official said, subtly referencing the well-known fact that Yangon’s most prominent businesspeople, those with the deepest connections to the government, frequent and own some of these establishments.
So if expat bars came under the curfew immediately following a sexual assault incident that elicited a statement from the US embassy, and if locally owned bars were included following violent and drug-related crimes, yet the authorities deny that these incidents are related to the enforcement of the curfew, what are we left with?
The only theory with any official support is that the curfew is related to the upcoming
election. Why, then, would some authorities deny this?
Perhaps the case of Yangon’s 11pm curfew offers some insight into how the Myanmar government prefers to impose social control. Reasons for the curfew were not given when expat bars were first subjected to it. The community was forced to rely on the sexual assault incident as a justification, even if many still have doubts about it. The next stage was the imposition of the curfew on locally owned establishments in September, which was hardly recognised as a separate event. The small expat community had been given four months to become accustomed to the curfew before it was quietly imposed upon millions of local residents.
The curfew is not a real curfew – people do not need to be in their homes when the clock strikes 11. It is unclear what Nay Pyi Taw might be seeking to achieve by removing Yangonites from venues for social engagement at 11pm, even during election season. Whatever the answer is, the people on top are certainly doing a good job of maintaining the curfew’s air of mystery.