Japanese cars enjoy an afterlife in Myanmar, but not for much longer

THE Japanese make cars that last but replace them relatively quickly. The average car in Japan is three years younger than in America. This combination of durable manufacturing and dutiful consumption of a prized national product works out well for the rest of the world; many countries import older Japanese cars in bulk. Secondhand vehicles fill vast parking lots in Japan’s port cities, awaiting shipment to New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere.

The third-most-popular destination is Myanmar, which imported over 80,000 used Japanese vehicles in the first nine months of this year, according to Japan’s International Auto Trade Association. Drivers believe that Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans can stand up to the country’s pockmarked roads, a faith not yet shown in South Korean and Chinese cars.

There is only one problem, which is that Japan drives on the left, Myanmar on the right. As a consequence, most of Myanmar’s drivers sit on the wrong side of the car, where it is harder to see oncoming traffic. Settle into the passenger seat of a Honda taxi on a narrow rural road and you may be called upon to perform unexpected duties like telling your driver when it is safe to overtake a slow-moving lorry, without hitting a scooter, gaggle of children or bonnet-less jalopy travelling in the other direction.

Not everyone executes these responsibilities successfully. Myanmar has the highest rate of deaths per vehicle among the ten members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), according to the World Health Organisation. Evidence of accidents litters the roadside outside Yangon: a silver Toyota that has lost everything in front of its windscreen and a red Suzuki hatchback that also now has a hatchfront.

Myanmar’s government periodically tightens the import rules to keep older and less safe cars off the country’s roads.

In October it said it will allow individuals to import only cars built in 2016 or after. And after this year, it will no longer grant import permits for right-hand-drive cars.

The tighter policy may encourage local car assembly. Suzuki will open a new factory for left-hand-drive cars outside Yangon next year, adding to its existing plant in the city’s east. But the change will oblige drivers to buy cars that are either more expensive or less authentically Japanese. The new left-hand-drive Corolla on display in the Toyota “Mingalar” dealership in Yangon, for example, was made in Thailand and is listed at $33,900, over 26 times the country’s national income per person.

One other constituency may also come to regret the altered rules. Many poorer residents of Yangon, where motorcycles are banned, ride bicycles or sit in three-wheeled “trishaws”, trundling alongside the kerb. As more of Myanmar’s drivers shift to the left seat, oncoming traffic will be easier to spot; but these kerbside pedal pushers will be more exposed than ever.

Source: The Economist

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