BANGKOK/YANGON, Dec 19 (The Straits Times/ANN): One afternoon in November, Ms Aye boarded a bus after shopping at Yangon’s bustling Mingalar Market. The vehicle was packed, but that did not stop 10 young men from squeezing in somewhere along the journey.
Once on board, they pulled out knives and forced a passenger to surrender her earrings. Another commuter next to her was ordered to remove her necklace. When a young man tried to intervene, he was beaten up by the gang.
The bus driver, rather than trying to stop the robbers, stopped the bus and opened its back door.
“He didn’t drive the bus to the police station,” Ms Aye, who did not give her full name for security reasons, told The Straits Times.
“He only opened the back door for passengers, some of whom tried to escape through the bus windows,” said the 36-year-old teacher who was not robbed. The gang fled via the back door.
That was the first time Ms Aye had witnessed an armed robbery, which appears to have risen in tandem with petty crimes following the political and economic crisis in Myanmar triggered by the military coup in February 2021.
While definitive crime statistics were not available, over 10 urban residents contacted by ST reported having been victims of or witnessed crimes affecting their friends and relatives, making them unwilling to venture outdoors at nightfall or fearful of carrying anything valuable when they leave their homes.
Water pumps affixed to apartment blocks and even large generators – a common sight on Yangon streets due to the frequency of blackouts – are being stolen as economic desperation takes hold. Some residents say they now close their windows even when home to deter burglars.
The general state of insecurity is growing even in areas far away from the fiercest battles like those in Chin state fought by the Myanmar junta against ethnic armed groups and people’s defence forces (PDF) that have emerged in response to the coup. Across the country, over one million people have been displaced from their homes and more than 7,000 civilians have been killed since the coup.
While the junta prepares to hold fresh elections in 2023 under new rules tilted to favour its allies, Myanmar has seen a deterioration in food security and nutrition in 2022.
According to an International Food Policy Research Institute paper released in December, 4 per cent of households were in “moderate to severe hunger” from July to August 2022, with the most hunger experienced in Kayah and Chin states, and Tanintharyi region.
Residents allege that police are too preoccupied with trying to crack down on anti-junta resistance to pay heed to petty crimes, and that attacks on PDF have also made the forces wary of venturing out of their bases to investigate crimes.
“There is not much we can do but run,” Ms Aye told ST. “These days, I leave my phone behind when I go out... I take only enough money for transportation. And I don’t wear jewellery any more.”
The junta did not respond to ST’s queries on this issue.
Ms Oo, a grocer in Yangon, has witnessed a rise in brazen thefts from her shopfront.
“In November, a young man came to my shop to transfer money via the Wave Money application. When he was checking his phone, two men on a motorcycle simply grabbed his phone and rode away,” she said. “The criminals have gotten bolder because people have no idea where to report the crimes and no organisations take action against this.”
Mr Kaung, a 25-year-old student who declined to give his full name, was robbed in November, but fears for his personal safety made him abandon the idea of filing a police report.
He was jogging in Yangon’s busy Kandawgyi Lake Park at dusk when he was stabbed in the chest by robbers who made off with his ring and smartphone.
Initially, he wanted to make a police report on his lost ring, but changed his mind because he was worried the officers would try to harass or even extort money from him.
Still traumatised by the robbery, he now spends his time indoors as much as possible, and carries a long umbrella when he ventures outdoors.
“We need to carry a weapon to protect ourselves these days,” he said. “The only way to be truly safe is to leave the country.” - The Straits Times/ANN