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Tales from the night shift

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Daytime taxi drivers in Yangon struggle against terrible traffic and soaring afternoon temperatures, but those who work after sundown face altogether different – and potentially deadly – challenges.

It was like a scene from a Halloween nightmare: On the night of October 31, 2004, U Myint Thein lay dying on a gurney in West Yangon General Hospital, blood flowing from a stab wound in his chest as he explained to doctors how he had come to be in such a state.

U Myint Thein, 48 years old at the time, was a taxi driver. He preferred the night shift because Yangon’s roads were quieter then, and, as he explained to friends, being overweight caused him to suffer inordinately from the heat of the day.

As he bled, he told hospital staff that earlier in the evening he had picked up two young men near Thiri Mingalar Market who said they needed a ride to Yankin Children Hospital. They agreed on a fare but as they neared the hospital the passengers claimed they had been mistaken and actually wanted Yangon Central Women’s Hospital. Once there, they changed their minds again and insisted on being driven to West Yangon General.

As they approached the final destination the two men, who were sitting in the back of the taxi, reached forward, pinned U Myint Thein against the seat and demanded his money. The driver, in a panic, shouted and started opening his door, but before he could escape one of the men stabbed him in the chest with a dagger. The attackers then fled the scene empty-handed.

U Myint Thein managed to drive himself to the hospital and clung to life long enough to tell his story, but he passed away in the early morning hours of November 1. Seven days later the two attackers were arrested based on descriptions and details provided to doctors on the night of stabbing – but of course it was all too late to save the victim.

Another driver, 42-year-old U Thi Ha, faced a similar situation one night about six years ago, but slightly different circumstances – and a bit of luck – conspired to facilitate his survival. He said the incident started around 10pm when he picked up three men who wanted to go to Kwin Kyaung Street in Ahlone township.

“Two men sat in the back and one in the front. Along the way they asked me to roll up all the windows because they needed to make an important call on their mobile phone,” U Thi Ha said. “One guy made a call, but as we neared Kwin Kyaung Street they suddenly told me to stop the taxi, and one of the guys in the back grabbed me and held me to the seat.”

As the thieves rifled through his wallet, U Thi Ha opened the door and tried to run. One of the men struggled to pull him back into the taxi and demanded the car key. Another slashed at him with a knife but only bloodied his hand.

“I was finally able to get out of the taxi and scream for help. Luckily, a group of policemen happened to be walking by. They rushed over and arrested the men on the spot,” U Thi Ha said, adding that after the incident he decided not to tempt the fates any further.

“I still drive a taxi, but ever since that day I haven’t worked after dark,” he said.

Reports of similar attacks against night-shift taxi drivers emerge from the police on a weekly basis, many of which are detailed in The Myanmar Times “Crime in Brief” column. This past week alone saw a double mugging in San Chaung village, a robbery near Ahlein Nga Sint Pagoda in Insein township, and other taxi attacks elsewhere.

At the same time, there have also been allegations of drivers sexually assaulting passengers. In May, the United States embassy in Yangon warned its nationals to be wary when taking taxis around the city, following reports of attacks on female passengers by male taxi drivers that ranged from indecent exposure to attempted sexual assaults.

These incidents have given rise to suggestions that CCTV cameras be installed in taxis in a bid to fight crime, and the Yangon Region Supervisory Committee for Motor Vehicles, better known by its Myanmar-language acronym Ma Hta Tha, has presented the proposal to the Yangon Region government.

However, at an estimated cost of US$300 for a camera and installation, it’s unlikely that many drivers would be willing or able to foot the bill.

In the meantime, just about every taxi driver who works at night can relate a story or two about being attacked, or about a narrow escape from would-be criminals.

Ko Tun Aung, 35, said he prefers driving his taxi at night because there’s less traffic, but three years of experience has taught him to avoid sketchy areas like Hlaing Tharyar township.

“One night a young man hired my taxi to go from Theingyi Zay Market to Hlaing Tharyar. It was a long drive but we agreed on a price and I started driving,” he said.

“The passenger slept the entire way, so when we arrived at the place he wanted to go I woke him and asked for the fare. But he claimed he had already given me the money. I was so angry I started yelling at him.”

The driver’s irate outburst attracted the attention of a small group of men who had been hanging out in the street drinking alcohol, and who approached the car asking what the problem was.

“This was in a small suburb at the end of the street, and I felt like these men were coming not to help but to make problems. I didn’t want to get into a fight with a bunch of drunks, so I left without getting my fare. I don’t drive around Hlaing Tharyar anymore.”

With such harrowing stories circulating among drivers, it’s little wonder that many choose to err on the side of caution. But it’s also possible that some might allow their imaginations to get the better of them from time to time.

Driver U Soe Min Myo, 35, said that last year rumours spread around Yangon about a group of older women who were robbing taxis.

“One night last May I was driving on University Avenue Road and I stopped for a woman in her mid-40s who looked so neat and tidy. She said she wanted to go to Inya Kan Baung,” he said.

U Soe Min Myo said that after settling on a price, the woman got into the front passenger seat. At first she talked about her job as a tutor at Yangon University, but his suspicions were aroused when she started asking how much money he had earned that night.

“I said I had made only a few thousand kyats, but she kept asking about money and looking around the taxi. She even touched my hand. I started thinking that she didn’t look like a tutor, and then I remembered hearing about those women who rob taxis.”

He immediately began visualizing a scenario where he would stop at crowded Inya Kan Baung, at which point his passenger would begin shouting for help as if he had done something wrong.

“The rest of the woman’s group could have been waiting there, and they could have run up and robbed me by hitting me as if I had made a mistake,” U Soe Min Myo said.

Unwilling to risk a mugging, he decided to take drastic action. “I stopped my taxi when I saw some people standing along the road and I told the woman to get out. She was very angry and shouted a lot, but I quickly drove away.”

It’s quite possible that U Soe Min Myo had saved himself from being robbed by a ring of crafty middle-aged thieves. Or perhaps, in his paranoia, he had left an innocent women standing by the side of the road at night – a prim and proper, if a bit eccentric, university tutor who to this day wonders why she was booted out of a taxi on her way to meet family or friends at Inya Kan Baung.

This story was originally published in the October 30-November 5 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine. Interviews with taxi drivers were conducted in Myanmar language by reporter Nyein Ei Ei Htwe, who also translated them into English, after which I wrote the story.

MT.Tales from the Night Shift 2015 Oct 30

Written by latefornowhere

November 2, 2015 at 8:53 am