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Fume-belching classic European cars and ageing Japanese sedans have rattled along Burma’s streets for decades, but as the country opens up many of the rust buckets are finally facing the scrapheap.
The cars rumble loudly as engines rebuilt with parts salvaged from dead autos gasp for life and fan belts squeal. Their headlights sometimes die at night and many have rotten floors that offer a view of the asphalt beneath.
Most of the rusting automobiles on the streets of the main city Rangoon hail from Japan, but there are also classic Western models dating back to a bygone era before the reclusive generals seized power half a century ago.
The main reason for the ageing fleet is not international sanctions — which do not prevent foreign cars reaching Burma’s shores — but rather the sky-high import cost under the former junta.
Now, however, the country’s new nominally civilian government is easing car import regulations to allow more vehicles to be brought in from overseas — for those who can afford it.
“The government is offering owners a chance to own imported used cars if they swap their old cars, which is a good idea,” said classic car owner Than Htay, 52, as he checked the engine of his 1950s-era Mercedes Benz that in other parts of the world would arouse the interests of serious collectors.
“But many ordinary Burmese are poor and will still not be able to afford newer models,” he added.
Under military rule, imported cars were a luxury reserved for people close to the junta, whose cronies are more likely to be seen behind the wheel of a Mercedes or a Ferrari than a battered old Toyota.
Even a two-decades-old Japanese saloon could fetch $20,000 or more, while a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser could boast a price tag of upwards of $250,000.
In September last year the government announced that owners of cars at least 40 years old could trade them in for hard-to-get permits to purchase imported used vehicles, sending prices of the rust buckets soaring.
It said the scheme — under which the old cars will be scrapped — would be gradually expanded to include vehicles at least 20 years old.
But even under the offer, taxes and import duties mean a used car costs more than $10,000 — a huge sum in a country where a third of the nearly 60 million people still live in poverty.
Nowadays local newspapers publish special sections advertising used cars, while several dealerships offering imported second-hand autos from Japan have sprung up around Rangoon in recent months.
Small Chinese-made cars in brash colours can also now be seen alongside the rattletraps.
Self-taught vintage car expert and mechanic Soe Min Latt is one of thousands in Myanmar whose livelihoods depend on their skills in keeping the old cars on the streets.
“We can revive everything on four tyres,” boasted the 32-year-old.
He said the new scheme caused a drop in business since late last year at his shop in Rangoon’s Bayint Naung industrial area, with many owners who could afford to trading in their ancient models.
“Those who owned old cars were trading for import permits, instead of having them serviced and buying parts,” he said.
But despite reforms that have advanced at a startling pace since the new government took power last year, Burma remains one of the world’s least developed countries and owning a newer car remains just a dream for most.
Than Htay said his faded rust-orange Mercedes would remain in service, unless somebody looking to buy an old car to swap for an import permit came along with a very good offer, or if a restoration expert took the risk of going through the corrupt bureaucracy to take it abroad.
He said his car had passed from one family to another but was likely originally owned by a former politician at a time when Rangoon was a thriving port city more than half a century ago.
Than Htay said he discovered it years ago in a garage in the former capital, covered in thick dust but with all its original parts intact. It coughed to life after he swapped the tyres and battery and topped up the tank.
It still sports the original accessories, and its Mercedes-Benz insignia still proudly stands erect on its hood, albeit slightly rusted.
The engine bears the official seal from the German manufacturer, and its original wooden dashboard and panels retain some of its past grandeur.
But a permanent smell of mildew envelopes the interior, and holes have appeared in the floor.
“It has no power steering, so it’s very heavy to negotiate around narrow streets, though it gets me where I want to go,” said Than Htay, a trader and part-time tour operator.
In Burma, he said, “cars do not really die, but are resurrected and recycled.”