In the new Myanmar, even beater cars can cost $30,000 or more.

YANGON, Myanmar—

The text starts out dry:
On May 20, 1997, the President issued Executive Order 13047 (E.O. 13047) determining that the Government of Burma has committed large-scale repression of the democratic opposition in Burma and declaring a national emergency with respect to the actions and policies of the Government of Burma.

But that parched language from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the start of the full outline of Burmese sanctions, has a vivid, living effect on the lives everyone in that country (except, of course for the kleptocrats who manage to thieve their way above and around sanctions everywhere in the world). Much of what I saw in the north of Myanmar—the Myit Sone dam, the restrictions on local gold mining, some elements of the Kachin war—stem from the U.S. and EU sanctions that have forced Myanmar and its poorest people into China’s cold embrace.

But on the streets of Yangon, as on the streets of Havana, the first thing you notice about the sanctions are the cars. Wheezing, choking, dying, warbling, the world’s shittiest fleet of automobiles lives on the streets of Yangon. Each taxi more rickety than the last: to get back to the hotel after Hillary Clinton’s visit to the Shwedagon, Matt and I hailed a cab that seemed no more or less crappy than the usual, until I looked down at the floorboard in the backseat and saw the headlights of the cars behind us. The floorboard was literally just a board, and not much of a floor, almost scraping on the pavement below.

But this is not Havana: there are no voluptuous Edsels and Buicks, running on baling wire and duct tape, that give Cuba its motorists’ charm. Instead, Myanmar is filled with charmless Asian clunkers that failed tightening emissions standards in countries like Japan decades ago. This Mazda (Mazda B360, right?) was the quaintest I saw in all my time on the roads of Myanmar.

That doesn’t mean that the cars come cheap. Thanks in part to the sanctions and in part to the baroque economic systems of military junta, even cars like this can cost $30,000 or more. That’s how much hiphop artist Thxa Soe, who showed us around Yangon during our time there, paid for his mid-90s Japanese import, a cost we estimated might be 10 times what the car would fetch in, say, the U.S.

This little Mazda, however, might have a new value in Myanmar. As reported in Asahi Shimbun last month, the central government is contemplating a trade-in to get the oldest cars in Myanmar off the street in exchange for coveted permissions to buy newer (post-1995) cars:

“As part of the reforms, a Commerce Ministry official said showrooms would open in major cities to sell new and second-hand cars from Japan, South Korea and neighboring countries such as Thailand — a manufacturing hub for the top producers.

‘All these things will happen one after another very soon. Just save your money and wait to buy in the showroom,’ said the official, predicting U.S. and European models would follow if Western sanctions are lifted.”

It’s a little hard to imagine, but so is every other change currently happening in the country. One slight hitch on the way to new Priuses and Chrysler 300s for the Myanmar people, though: if there’s one thing crappier than the cars of Myanmar, it’s the roads. And those press-gangs of women and children you see in rural Myanmar tossing dirt into potholes aren’t going to get the country far. So forget the cars. First lift sanctions on heavy road-building machines: motor graders, road rollers, asphalt pavers. I hear even the Chinese are making those now.