A ride of terror
Passengers and taxi drivers have everything to gain from stricter rules.
70,000 taxis in the Yangon Region 30,000 taxis are registered as city taxis.
IT was late at night. She argued about the taxi fare – as we all do. After the ride, the driver raised the price – as they often do. But this time things took a nasty turn. The passenger, a young girl, refused to pay the extra bit of money and the driver attacked her with a screwdriver, raped her unconscious and ditched her inanimate body on the outskirt of Yangon. The victim died, the culprit was arrested. Case closed? Not so sure.
The tragic event that happened last month raises bigger questions about how the taxi industry is regulated in Yangon, especially at night. With notoriously bad public transports, few ways to get around by bikes, Yangonites heavily rely on taxis for their daily routine. Making sure passengers are safe and drivers enjoy good working conditions becomes a necessity.
This incident might well be the jolt decision-makers needed. “As soon as I heard this news, it felt like a bomb exploded in the middle of the city,” said Ma Hsu Mon, 27, who is currently working as a copy typist at a printing shop in Kyauktada township and routinely takes a taxi home after 9pm to her home in North Dagon Myothit township. “I myself am becoming anxious daily as this danger is lurking near me,” she adds.
Ma Hsu Mon is not the only one in this case. In a small non-scientific survey conducted with 50 active women, aged 18 to 45, all said they were “terrified” to take a cab at night.
And yet, for women working in cities there are few other alternatives. Buses are considered safer as they are usually crowded and victims can seek for help. But it is also a breeding ground for groping and sexual harassment.
And buses are not the solution for people working late or living far away. They stop after 8pm with a few exceptions, leaving taxis as the only option. Some trains still go, but lack of public lighting makes them as unsafe as cabs, if not more.
Policy makers do not seem to have factored in what it is to be a woman living in urban Myanmar – it might have to do with the fact that women are hugely underrepresented in politics.
Worse, victim blaming has started to show its nasty face and talks about what the victim was wearing started to surface. “Women are being prohibited from hanging out or wearing some outfits as a concern over possible crimes and rapes. These are not workable solutions,” says Daw Hla Hla Yi from Legal Clinic Myanmar, an association providing assistance to victims of abuses.
“I’m speechless at the thought that rape occurred because of clothing,” says Ma Chit, a Yangonite who used to live abroad. “In Singapore, you can dress however you like and you will get to your home safely at any hour,” she adds. Ma Chit blames a lenient punishment for rapists in Myanmar law, and the lack of law enforcement.
Bad system, bad people Security is not just a women’s concern. Nobody is safe when a taxi driver is drunk or driving recklessly. “Things became worst after the murder case,” says Ko Aung Kyaw Phone, a taxi driver. “Even if the passenger is a man, he will not trust the driver who is also a man.”
Equally, the debate should not only be about “Innocent passengers Vs evil taxi drivers”.
For a start, safety is not only a concern for passengers. Drivers carry around money collected from their fares and as they are often alone they make for an easy target. A taxi driver was killed on January 14 in front of the agriculture compound in Insein township.
Then there are plenty of well-meaning and honest people behind the wheel. To name just one: U Nay Win who lost his life trying to catch the assassin of U Ko Ni, the prominent lawyer and close adviser to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The problem is that there are very few ways to check who is indeed good and qualified and who is not, especially at night. The taxi industry is not totally unregulated. Having a driving license is a prerequisite and registered drivers must have at least three years of experience – yes, they do. However, in the absence of strict enforcement, offenders get off scot free. Worst, registered taxi drivers often rent their taxis to inexperienced drivers.
Night cabs also have a bad reputation. Passengers started to fear them after thousands of prisoners were granted amnesty and released during the U Thein Sein government. Many citizens believe they joined the profession as there were few barriers to enter. Some taxi drivers have typed out and printed a brief biography of them on a large vinyl and glued it on their cars, but that won’t do the trick.
It is high time decision makers tackle the matter. Regional law-makers should seize this opportunity to prove their added-value and design rules that fits their constituents best. They know their cities and where random controls could be performed.
Taxi drivers should welcome the move towards more regulation. Surely they have everything to gain from taking bad drivers off the road. More than that, they have a responsibility to uphold the reputation of their profession.
Bad system, bad for business The incentive to reform is also economical. “It’s nothing like before,” says a driver referring to the case. “Now we’re struggling very hard to earn even the amount of K5,000 or K10,000 per day after setting aside money for car owners”.
Because of what happened, Myanmar people are increasingly tempted by private taxi services like Grab, Uber and Oway where you can get the driver’s id, car number plate and even phone number.
In other parts of the world, Uber has several advantages: no cash transaction, cheaper rides and the possibility to get around the strict limitation on the number of taxis – no regulation is bad, too much regulation too. But in Myanmar, these taxihailing companies are banking on security.
For now, these services are more expensive than regular taxis and only whitecollar workers and internationals can afford them. But one shouldn’t underestimate these companies’ abilities to adapt to the local market, especially in smart phone-crazy Myanmar. When people will realise that they have a safe ride at the end of their finger tips, the taxi industry might take a hit.
But for now, taxis enjoy a dominant position. Still according to our highly anecdotal survey, 80pc of people interrogated said they will be more cautious when getting in a cab at night (write down the vehicle’s license plate or send that information to family members or friends for instance). But nobody says that they will no longer take taxis.
Unless taxi drives and authorities ensure the streets of Yangon are safe, other rides of terror are to be expected.
Translated by Kyaw Soe Htet and Win Thaw Thar
A young woman tries to get a taxi at night on Bogyoke Road, February 2018.