As the sun set on Rangoon and the heat dissipated after a long day of rains, Ba Bu Lay sat and watched as his sons finished repairs in a shop full of imported Japanese and European cars.
These days Ba Bu Lay, who owns Ba Bu Lay and Sons in a section of town known for auto mechanics’ shops, doesn’t have much competition.
“There used to be so many workshops in Yangon. Now the old cars are slowly, slowly gone and the new cars come and the old mechanics don’t know how to work on them,” Ba Bu Lay explained.
Started in 2011, a kind of “cash for clunkers” program in Burma has spurred the import of Japanese cars by encouraging owners of the old, battered vehicles that once filled streets across the nation to turn them into scrap metal at a government-run facility on the outskirts of Rangoon. In exchange for their clunkers, participants receive a voucher that allows them to import a used car from Japan that previously would have had a prohibitively high tax imposed on it.
The net effect of the program is obvious in Rangoon, where newer Japanese imports increasingly crowd the roads.
“Between October 2011 and April 24, 2013, a total of 160,431 cars were imported into Myanmar,” Thein Myint Wai, an assistant director at the Ministry of Commerce, told The Irrawaddy in April.
Despite the surge of new cars, the lifelong mechanic Ba Bu Lay said small workshops are suffering because they don’t know how to work on the new models.
Thanks to his shop’s good reputation, locally based diplomats have been bringing their more sophisticated vehicles to his shop for more than 20 years, he said. To keep up with the demand, Ba Bu Lay sent his sons to Singapore 10 years ago to learn how to work on new vehicles that require a more specialized skill set.
This foresight gave him and his four sons a jumpstart on the advanced technologies, Ba Bu Lay said as he smoked a cigarette and watched his sons close shop for the day.
Business is good at Ba Bu Lay and Sons, but others have not been so fortunate. With many of the older, problem-laden cars now being used as scrap metal, and their replacements featuring far more complex machinery, a generation of mechanics is fading.
“Many mechanics who only work on the old cars have closed their shops because they cannot follow the technology,” Ba Bu Lay said.
Near Ba Bu Lay’s shop in a crowded Rangoon classroom, men write words like “manufacturing specifications” and “powertrain” in their notebooks as mechanical engineer Zaw Ye Win lectures them on the importance of properly diagnosing a malfunctioning car before attempting to fix it.
The students are learning how to run on-board diagnostics, or OBD, as the wave of used Japanese cars floods Burma. With all the new imports, many of Burma’s mechanics are finding themselves at a loss when it comes to knowing how to properly work on the newer and more sophisticated cars, Zaw Ye Win confirmed.
“All of our mechanics only know how to work on older cars and traditional diagnostics,” he said. “They run the car and listen to the sound of the engine and they may drive it around a little bit and it’s all according to the mechanic’s experience, but that doesn’t work on the newer cars.”
Because of this knowledge gap, Zaw Ye Win and a few friends from engineering school founded Engine Doctor Engineering, a school that teaches mechanics how to handle the new technologies.
“Running diagnostics correctly is one of the most important things when working on a used car,” said Zaw Ye Win, who opened the mechanics school earlier this year. “And most of the countrymen can only afford to buy used cars.”
So far, each month-long class has been filled with mechanics, most of whom own or work for auto shops. After learning how to use the sophisticated and oftentimes proprietary OBD equipment, they will bring that knowledge back to their shops where they can teach their coworkers, Zaw Ye Win said.
Myat Ko Ko, the managing director of Skyhigh, a used car dealer, said the newer models bring another challenge. Despite a new Toyota dealership in town, which has most parts immediately available, procuring parts for the changing car landscape in Burma can be difficult and delays repairs, Myat Ko Ko said.
On top of the struggle to locate parts, finding a mechanic capable of working with the new cars’ computer-based technologies can be equally difficult, he said.
So hard that Myat Ko Ko has had to bring in a mechanic from Thailand who is more familiar with Japanese cars to work on his own sports car.
“[My mechanic] doesn’t speak Burmese and I don’t speak Thai so there is a lot of miscommunication between the two of us, but he is better than anybody locally,” he said with a laugh.