Dash for gas gives Myanmar the bus stop blues
To cut down on costly imports of petroleum, of which Myanmar does not have much, its ruling generals want every vehicle in the country to run on natural gas, of which it has plenty.
However, early signs suggest the scheme is every bit as ill-conceived as Ne Win's whimsical stand against former colonial master Britain, which drives on the left.
Since 2005, the junta has managed to get around 11,000 taxis and buses in Yangon -- most of them decades-old jalopies held together by bits of wire and the ingenuity of their owners -- to convert to compressed natural gas (CNG).
Unfortunately, during this time it has installed only 20 filling stations for a city of five million people.
More unfortunately, the CNG pumps they have installed are so archaic they can take 30 minutes to fill up one vehicle. Even more unfortunately, every time a power blackout strikes -- which is at least once a day -- the pumps grind to a halt.
The result? Buses and taxis are spending longer queuing for fuel than ferrying around passengers. Waits of up to 10 hours are not uncommon, leaving the city's public transport system in disarray. "If you queue late in the afternoon, you get your gas the next morning. If you queue in the morning, you get it late in the afternoon or early in the evening but you can't run during the peak hours," bus owner Ko Kyaw Lin said. "I'm lucky enough to have two brothers who help me taking turns queuing at night and driving the next day," he said while playing checkers with his friends beside the road.
WAITING, WAITING, WAITING
After four decades of military rule and economic mismanagement that have seen the former Burma slide from one of southeast Asia's richest nations to an international basket case, Yangon's residents are used to taking it on the chin. "I spend at least three hours every day at bus stops and on the buses," Internet cafe worker Ma Thein Thein said of her 10 km (6 mile) journey to work.
The long delays are also causing fearful women to stop work or cancel evening classes to avoid being out late at night."We can't stand the looks we get at the bus stop in the evening. Some people look at us as if we're prostitutes," her friend Moe Moe said.The truth is that people have few other travel options. In most other low-income parts of southeast Asia, motorbikes are what keep populations moving, with drivers in cities such as Phnom Penh able to carry a family of four on two wheels.
In Yangon, however, motorbikes have been banned since 2001. No explanation was given, although the main theories were the junta trying to reduce motorbike traffic accidents or make life difficult for two-wheeled gunmen or students agitators. New cars are also impossible to find, due to a virtual ban on private citizens importing cars. Only a few hundred import permits are issued each year and go to the military or their business associates.Things can only get better?
As result, one of the poorest nations in Asia has some of the most expensive second-hand cars in the world -- a 1980s Nissan Sunny that would hardly be sold for scrap in Bangkok fetches more than $20,000 in the second-hand car bazaars of Yangon.
Myanmar ranks as one of the world's least motorized nations, with two cars for every 1,000 people, according to figures for 2000 from the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington research institute. By contrast, Rwanda had four and Cambodia 47. According to government data for 2006, there were only 196,000 registered cars, 54,000 trucks and 18,000 buses in the entire country of 52 million. NIGHTTIME QUEUES Not everybody, however, is complaining about Yangon's faltering "dash for gas." The long queues of bored, hungry and thirsty drivers are a captive market for snack vendors -- and the bigger the queue, the richer the pickings. They have also created a unique job opportunity for insomniacs. "I wait in line for people who don't want to stay up all night," said professional queuer Ko Min Aung, who says he can make 2,500 kyat -- around $2 at black market rates -- a night. "My only sacrifice is a good night's sleep. Right now, I'm queuing for a neighbor who needs to get enough sleep to drive his bus tomorrow morning."