A ride of ter­ror

Pas­sen­gers and taxi drivers have ev­ery­thing to gain from stricter rules.

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Weekend | Taxi - BY HTIKE NANDA WIN Photo: Nyan Zay Htet

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.

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