Yangon Municipal Body Must Strictly Enforce Its New Law

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 23 January 2019

It has been more than two months since Yangon’s new municipal law came into effect. Do the city’s residents see the legislation drafted at State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s request as having a positive impact on their daily lives?

As a Yangon native and resident, I’d have to answer, “yes and no.”

It’s true that the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), the city’s municipal body, is trying to realize its vision to make the former capital a more livable place. Take a stroll around the city center and you can feel the difference. In a marked improvement from early last year, the sidewalks of Anawrahta Road near Sule Pagoda are now relatively free of vendors and are more pedestrian friendly. The broken pavements that once circled Kandawgyi Lake have mostly been replaced. The food carts that once intruded on Maha Bandoola Road in Chinatown are gone. Some downtown alleys that were once choked with garbage are largely clean.

Taken alone, these examples paint a rosy picture—an image of the recently enacted municipal law being effectively implemented by the YCDC thanks to its imposition of fines and jail sentences as prescribed in the law.

However, the view from the footbridge at the Sule Junction—a scene of vehicles backed up at traffic lights—tells a different story. During a recent morning rush hour, drivers waiting at the traffic lights could be seen rolling down their windows to spit betel juice onto the road: a violation of the city’s sanitation statutes that should earn an offender a fine of from 30,000 to 50,000 kyats under the new YCDC Law. Turn into any side street off a main road downtown and it will likely seem narrower than when you took the road last year. One side of the street will probably be lined with vendors and food carts, which have been banished from the pavements of the main roads—while cars are parked on the other side. (It’s not clear if those vendors have permission to be there from the YCDC. If not, they are in violation of Article 315 of the YCDC Law, which prohibits any obstruction of public roads, streets and sidewalks.) Meanwhile, on the corner of the street, an old generator as large as a minivan sits idle, in defiance of the 10,000 to 100,000-kyat fine called for in the law. This is all just a few meters from City Hall, the YCDC’s headquarters. Welcome to Yangon!

These examples illustrate vividly the municipal body’s failure to fully enforce its own law. It can’t be said that people aren’t aware of the law. It was enacted in June, but the YCDC set aside three months (July, August and September) as an educational period for city dwellers to learn about the city’s “don’ts”. Afterward, the YCDC was supposed to focus on enforcing the law to make Yangon a livable city.

Recently, a lawmaker called Yangon Mayor U Maung Maung Soe (who has few achievements on behalf of the city to his credit after more than three years in office) a “windbag” over the municipal body’s failure to do its job. After the tough comments, YCDC staff stormed the streets of San Chaung Township to enforce the law. During their raids, they seized equipment from roadside vendors that choked the streets. They shooed away small eateries and lottery ticket sellers who were intruding on the pavements. For the first time in years, San Chaung residents realized their community has streets wide enough to walk freely upon without worrying every step of the way that they will tread on some piece of bric-a-brac belonging to a vendor.

But such ad hoc solutions to the city’s problems are not the answer. There are many other townships facing problems like San Chaung’s. Unregulated vendors are rampant. Street alleys are still littered with garbage. Cars parked on pavements force people to risk their lives by walking on the street as buses swish past them. In Tamwe Township, some bus stops have been entirely overrun by roadside vendors; commuters wait for their buses on the road.

When the new municipal law was enacted, city residents were delighted at the prospect of real change in their neighborhoods after putting up with these nuisances for many years. But now they feel the YCDC has let them down.

To fulfill residents’ hopes, the municipal body has to be tough in enforcing the law. YCDC officials say they have taken action in 100 cases so far. But it’s not enough. They must be merciless in taking action against those who litter on the streets or alleys in violation of the YCDC Law. When clamping down on unregulated street vendors, municipal enforcers should no longer play the cat-and-mouse game that the two sides have gotten used to.

Roadside vending in Yangon is a deep-rooted problem that was ignored by previous governments. They rarely launched intensive crackdowns aimed at wiping them out, partly because they were afraid it would lead to social unrest. So they turned a blind eye and the vendors proliferated unchecked. As time went by, they began to see the sidewalks as their rightful territory, and no longer thought of doing business on them as an offense. The city’s residents suffered.

The YCDC should not bow to resistance when trying to enforce the law. It needs a firm policy to keep its mission on track. Furthermore, the municipal body should use this moment as an opportunity to address its image, which has been tarnished during previous governments as one of the most corrupt institutions, and one that has consistently turned its back on the city’s residents. If the YCDC keeps heading in the right direction, people won’t mind supporting an organization that is trying to keep their city clean and livable. On the other hand, the city’s residents have to do their part and work with the YCDC by obeying the law. The municipal body has to be fully consistent in enforcing the law. For anyone who fails to obey it, there can be no option but to punish them for the sake of Yangon, which is not only our city, but also our home.