Inspector Hlaing Win Aung stared at a photo of a dead toddler lying on the pavement as he attempted to explain Yangon’s murky prohibition against motorbikes.
“It’s just about safety,” the traffic police inspector for North Okkalapa Township said.
He continued flipping through the photos on his computer screen. He pointed at a shot of four family members astride a single motorbike, then another of three people on a motorbike, one of whom is awkwardly clasping an umbrella over their head.
“There are too many cars in Yangon. Motorbike drivers tend to weave between traffic and often drive in the wrong direction or lane. They put too many passengers on one bike. Before the law was passed, everyone did this, and no one had licences,” he said.
Inspector Hlaing Win Aung paused at a photo showing a man’s body lodged between the front wheel and the metal frame of a truck, his motorbike a crumpled heap beneath him beside a puddle of blood.
“I see too many dead people. The ban against motorbikes is good,” he said.
Yet anyone who has visited townships north of downtown Yangon late enough at night would notice that the safety measure is somewhat selectively enforced.
According to inspector Hlaing Win Aung, only fuel-powered motorbikes are prohibited under the Yangon Region government’s 1989 community order against driving motorbikes in the city’s municipal area. Electric bikes, so long as they have pedals, are allowed throughout Yangon, except within the six townships comprising the downtown area.
Fuel-powered motorbikes, on the other hand, are illegal throughout the city. Nonetheless, they continue to be driven in plain view in Yangon’s northern areas, such as North Okkalapa, Mingaladon and Hlaingthaya townships.
The inconsistency with which Yangon’s anti-motorbike law is enforced is just one reason to doubt its stated purpose. Many have called attention to the fact that motorbikes are permitted in every other state and region of Myanmar. This has fuelled speculation that concerns other than the safety of motorists might be the reason behind the peculiar law.
According to an urban legend popularised in part by the graphic novel ‘Burma Chronicles’ by Guy Delisle, the law is the result of an incident in which two teenagers pulled up alongside the car of a military general and made gestures resembling the firing of a gun.
“This is true,” said Deputy Traffic Police Major Win Lwin.
“Teenagers have been known to ‘shoot’ at convoys of the country’s VIPs, which makes them fear motorbikes. It’s also a very rude gesture,” he said.
Inspector Hlaing Win Aung, on the other hand, said he never heard this story, saying it is “false and impossible.” He maintains that the law is primarily about keeping road users safe.
“We deal with about three motorbike accidents per month [in North Okkalapa], and there are many more in other townships,” he said.
One motorbike driver from North Okkalapa Township who declined to be named runs a tea shop less than a block away from the township’s traffic police station. He said he has ridden his motorbike for three years and has never been caught. He also lacks a licence.
“I am scared of the police, but I also know they can’t take my bike if I stay off the main roads. They are concerned about accidents, and no accidents happen on side streets,” he said.
Another reason to doubt the ban’s ability to improve road safety measure is the discrepancy between the penalties for licenced and unlicenced drivers.
According to the inspector, North Okkalapa traffic police confiscate around 30 motorbikes every week. If the driver has no licence, the motorbike is impounded, and if the owner fails to produce a licence within four or five months of the seizure, it is melted down.
He said his department sends off about 100 motorbikes every five months to be destroyed.
However, many motorbike drivers have licences from outside Yangon Region, and even though these licences do not permit them to ride their bikes in Yangon, they do soften the penalty for doing so. The inspector said a licenced motorbike driver must only pay a fine of K51,500 in order to have his bike returned a month later.
One resident of North Okkalapa said he was once pulled over by a traffic officer on a major thoroughfare and had his bike seized. The following day, he asked his brother, who is a captain in the military, to come to the police station.
“My brother walked in, nodded at the officers, said he was my brother, and my bike was returned that day,” he said with a shrug.
Thiri, who runs a showroom for electric bikes in North Okkalapa, said the law also rarely affects foreigners in Yangon.
“The police will not stop you. They don’t speak English,” she said.
Despite rumours that Yangon’s motorbike law may change amid the Myanmar government’s reform fervour, those who wish to see the ban lifted ought not hold their breath.
At a press conference at the Yangon Traffic Police Headquarters on Friday, Traffic Police Colonel Aung Ko Oo said, “We are taking action against motorbikes, even in the outskirts of Yangon, but we still find more and more every day.”
The press conference was held to discuss details of a new Motor Vehicles Law, which will be enacted this year. Fuel-powered motorbike repair shops and showrooms will remain legal under the new law, as they have been under the old one.
“People ride motorbikes because they can afford to buy them,” said Traffic Police Colonel Aung Ko Ko.
Inspector Hlaing Win Aung said while he believes motorbikes are dangerous, he understands why people continue to use them.
“The people in this township are poor. They cannot afford cars, and using motorbikes as taxis is an easy way for them to earn money. They are good for business, but not good for me,” he said.