Open roads: fighting the city’s traffic woes

As head of the city’s traffic police force, Police Lieutenant Colonel Linn Htut has one of the most unenviable jobs in Yangon. His 1000-strong staff are responsible for keeping the roads safe – and moving – in spite of grinding traffic jams, out-of-control bus drivers and inexperienced drivers, all on a relatively small budget and low pay. In this exclusive interview, he tells The Myanmar Times’ Moh Moh Thaw what the traffic police force is doing to fight congestion and how he believes the city’s traffic problems should be tackled.

Traffic jams have become a big issue in Yangon over the past two or three years. Is it because of the new car importing rules, or are there other reasons? What needs to be done to alleviate the traffic problems?

It is true that there are lots of imported cars. Most people use public transportation but there are few cars imported that lots of people can take. In a developing country like ours, we need more public transportation.

The second point – most people also talk about this – is infrastructure. Then … we need to think about parking. When we don’t, people just park wherever is convenient and that normally means they block a lane of the road. To combat this, we designated “no stop” roads and took action against offenders but I think we need to think again about how to manage it. There are some cars parked without discipline but others have to park on the road because they really cannot find a place to park.

Another factor is the weather … and the garbage disposal, garbage collection and drainage systems. For example, workers who collect the garbage out of the drain just pile it nearby. If a garbage truck sees it, they take it – but we need a better system.

[It is like] a person is digging a hole the whole day and at the same time another person is filling in the hole the whole day. It doesn’t make sense. There is no link between them. There is no person growing the trees or

putting the seeds into the hole … I think those are the kind of problems we are having here. For example, the roads are expanded but electricity poles and generators are still left on the road. Public toilets should be underground [not on the street]. The street vendors use what limited pavements we have … I think that, overall, there is a lack of cooperation.

You mentioned public transportation. I think most people in Yangon would agree with me when I say that the buses are not safe to take because of the way they are driven. Why can’t the city’s bus drivers be brought under control?

It is true. Bus drivers and conductors break the rules very often. Again, we need to look at why this is happening – it is because they have their own problems. They have to pay the fee to the bus owner and they have to earn that money before they can make a profit. They have to pay for gas. So, they start to think, “I will be okay only if I make that amount of money for today.” This is why they become competitive and drivers try to overtake other buses. The result is unnecessary car accidents and a lack of safety for passengers.

Recently you announced tougher penalties for some driving offences, including the suspending of driving licences. Bus drivers were quoted in media reports criticising the changes. What is your response? Are the rules too tough?

Are the rules we made really unfair? It is fine for people to speak out if something is unfair. But I think in this case people have not properly read what we are doing. For example, what happens if cars are parked at junctions? The road will be blocked, and it can cause accidents. Another offence is getting in and out of the car at the traffic light. Another is driving through a red light. These can all cause accidents and that’s why we introduced these punishments for those who break the rules.

Previously the fine was K50,000 for running a red light. Then it was reduced significantly, and now the punishment is suspension of a driver’s licence. Why are the rules changing so often?

Previously we set high fines, like K50,000 or 100,000, so people were a little bit scared. We thought that this was a burden for people and from October 1, 2013, we reduced the fines back to what is stated in the 1964 vehicle law. But these laws are outdated and the highest fine allowed is only K1500. Since we changed to lower fines, more people are breaking the laws. Finally, [the department that makes the law] decided to create stronger laws that ban [law-breaking drivers] and that’s when these [criticisms] appeared … But we issued it because it is needed.

Can you enforce these rules with your current staffing levels?

We have enough staff to cover Yangon. Our numbers have increased from 800 to 1000. At the same time, we are not able to have someone at every bus station or junction. Other countries don’t do that either. In Thailand, you only see traffic police when there’s an accident. At other times they just watch what is happening on CCTV. In Yangon, our staff are at almost every point and have to stand out in the rain. The problem is that people only seem to be able to drive smoothly and follow the rules when traffic police are present.

Now, we have nine … mobile teams to ensure people follow the rules. Everything is fine when one of our groups is at a place … but as soon as we move to another place, people just do what they want. We cannot be in every place all the time. The main thing is people should follow the rules whether we are there or not. Without discipline, a city, township, organisation or country cannot develop. Some people need to change their mindset. Everyone needs to be inclusive and think of others on the road.

What are the other differences between Yangon and Bangkok?

In Bangkok, there are 7.2 million cars. Here we only have 400,000 cars. But they have only 5000 traffic police to control many more cars and a much larger area. As I said, in our country, people follow the rules only when we are there. You can see that when a traffic light breaks and no police are there – it turns into a big mess.

The increasing traffic on the roads has obviously created many more challenges for the traffic police force, and made its role much more important.

Yes, traffic police have become more important in the time I have been in charge. Traffic is tight everywhere. If a road becomes blocked, the first thing people think of is the traffic police. Only the people who survey the roads know why the traffic is really bad. It is because of street vendors, the lack of pavements, the trishaw stations and taxis parked on the streets. There are lots of carts and bicycles on the streets. They make the cars go slow. But nobody thinks of that kind of thing. If the road is blocked, they just want the traffic police to fix it.

It sounds like a difficult job. Given that and the relatively low salary, how hard is it to keep your staff?

Apart from their salary, we have a project with the regional government to give bonuses from the traffic fund to staff by setting targets for the issuing of fines. It is not much money – it is a kind of like an award. In the long term, if you want staff to work properly and only focus on their work, they need to have a decent income. I don’t mean they need to be rich. Everybody knows [salaries] are a problem in Myanmar. Senior officials know it too and do as much as they can.

Corruption is still a huge problem in the civil service, and I’m sure the traffic police force is no different. What’s the secret to stopping illegal payments?

A person who doesn’t need to worry about having enough income to survive isn’t interested in corruption. That’s my opinion. I think ordinary workers probably feel the same. Who will want to take bribes, at the risk of being fired or going to jail, if they have enough already? Some may do … but most will not.

Will you be seeking a higher budget in coming years?

We receive an annual budget from the Ministry of Home Affairs, but we also get funds from the Yangon Region [government] that comes from income from fines. We spend that money to cover some basic needs but we need more for larger projects, such as having a CCTV control room. It is very expensive so needs to be covered by the state budget rather than fines.

For now you use a manual system for traffic management. Do you plan to change to a computerised system? What would the advantages be?

If we can get the technological assistance, our whole operation will be more effective. For example, I can now watch what is happening at 8-Mile junction. If something happens, I can give the instruction straight away and my staff can handle it quickly. Some people said to me that the police do not arrive even when there is a car accident. My response was, “Yes, if there’s an accident and police arrive within five minutes, it is a coincidence.” The reality is they can’t arrive early unless they see the accident while driving around on patrol [because there is no camera network to monitor traffic].

Do you think people in Myanmar will be better at following traffic rules in 10 years?

Traffic rules that are really needed are being amended or introduced now. If we can operate with these new laws effectively, the situation can improve significantly in 10 years. On the other hand, we shouldn’t focus only on enforcement. We also have many infrastructure needs.


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