High-Speed Heists Have Mandalay Afraid of the Dark

By Zarni Mann 4 September 2015

MANDALAY — It was a late August night in Burma’s second largest city when Moe Moe Htet, a lawyer in her early thirties, was whisked off the back of her husband’s motorbike and dragged several meters down a crudely paved boulevard.

She was one of the lucky ones. Moe Moe Htet lost her litigation license, her identification card, work-related documents and a sizeable amount of cash, but she sustained only minor injuries. At least one woman reportedly died in a similar high-speed robbery in July.

Mandalay is a popular destination in central Burma, a rich cultural center viewed as a friendly and “authentic” Burmese metropolis. That reputation is beginning to sour, however, as the crime rate climbs. Several targets in a recent rash of thievery said they no longer feel safe on the streets as motorcycles steadily replace the pushbikes that once were ubiquitous.

“Even in broad daylight,” Moe Moe Htet said several weeks after she was robbed, “when a motorbike with two or three men on it approaches me, I feel horrible. I am afraid to go out when it’s dark.”

She and her husband, Aung Naing Win, were on their way home after a late night at work when a larger bike sped up from behind them carrying three young men. Aung Naing Win swerved when one of the men grabbed onto his wife’s purse. He tried in vain to kick himself free of the menacing vehicle, but before he knew it he was on the ground and his wife was lying in the distance, bruised and bloodied.

“I had to let go of my handbag because I was in severe pain,” she recalled. “Their motorcycle was bigger than ours and it drove away so fast that we were unable to follow them.”

The couple reported the incident to the police, and within about a week they were notified that an arrest had been made. The three young men were also accused of involvement in no less that 18 other robberies, police told Moe Moe Htet.

Although she and her husband “recognized them at once,” the pair decided not to press charges. “We felt sympathy for them and their parents, they could have faced several years in prison,” she said.

Several victims told The Irrawaddy that they also opted out of pressing charges after an arrest had been made. Some, like Moe Moe Htet, felt sorry for their attackers, while others just thought it would be more trouble than it was worth.

Kyaw Khine, who was badly injured after being beaten with a baton by a man attempting to steal his mobile phone, said he simply couldn’t be bothered trying to see it through to prosecution.

“If I opened the case and they arrested the culprit, I would have to go to court several times,” he said. “It’s such a waste of time.”

Spending Money ‘Like a Boss’

Despite the public’s apparent reluctance to seek justice, the number of reported cases remains high. According to the Mandalay District Police Department, at least 53 cases of motorbike robbery have been reported since just the start of this year. Of those, 25 resulted in the arrest of more than 50 people. So far the frequency of attacks seems to have declined slightly from the year prior, when a total of 85 cases were reported.

“The rate is a bit lower than last year, people are becoming better informed,” an official from the department told The Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity. Most of the offenders, he said, were young men—many teenagers and some in their early 20’s—trying to make a quick buck so they could buy cell phones and motorbikes, or “spend money like a boss.”

The official said the ratio of police to residents in Mandalay is about 1 cop to every 2,000 citizens. He said the police force does what it can by creating random checkpoints and broadening routine patrol areas, but the number of officers is just too low to curb the rapid rise in crime. Because of the lack of manpower, he lamented, “we can’t protect the people completely just yet, and we still need their help to make Mandalay a crime-free city.”

Other types of urban transgression are also on the rise, locals said, including sexual assault, vandalism and physical violence. It’s clear from the moment you step inside a city hospital that something has changed.

In the past few weeks, a shocking number of patients have come to Mandalay General’s emergency room for injuries related to violent crime, according to a doctor at the hospital. Most of them were attacked by other drivers while commuting on their mopeds, he said.

“One night we treated seven patients from different locations, three of them with broken legs and arms, all who were robbed by motorcyclists on their way back home,” she said, requesting not to be identified.

“In some cases they were unconscious and we couldn’t contact their families until they had recovered the next day. In the case of dead bodies, we can’t say precisely [how many were involved in robberies] because some of them were in traffic accidents.”

At least one woman is believed to have died after being targeted by thugs on wheels. According to Than Than Win, who watched the whole horrifying ordeal unfold on one of Mandalay’s busiest throughways, 62nd Street, the woman was driving when two men on another bike closed in on her, grabbed her bag and pushed her over. Upon losing control of her vehicle, the woman tumbled to the ground and slammed her head against the pavement.

“She died on the spot,” said Than Than Win. “It was dark and they drove away before anyone could stop them.”