Street vendors sell vegetables and chickens in Yangon. Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

In the Myanmar city, government officials are intensifying efforts to control—and ultimately house—the informal businesses.

Downtown Yangon’s vibrancy owes much to its mass of street vendors. People in stalls, with carts, or on the ground sell everything from newspapers to fish to betel leaves to shoes. Such businesses are, for many, a way to make a living. For customers, they can provide food and other essentials at a lower cost.  

Myanmar’s recent political and economic transformation means changes for these vendors. In 2011, the government began a shift from a military junta to today’s elected, civilian-run administration. With the simultaneous opening of the country to the global economy, new ways of regulating and running businesses are altering more traditional, informal commercial practices.

The Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) recently began a crackdown on the common custom of selling public spaces to street vendors. Owners of houses or brick-and-mortar stores have benefited from informal agreements with vendors, selling them the right to use prime areas in front of their structures for up to 1 million Myanmar kyat ($830).

In other cases, vendors with identity cards issued by the YCDC in the 2000s would use their seemingly official status to sell spaces to other vendors for similar fees. Still others, claiming to be officials, would collect small sums from vendors for “taxes” every few days.

(Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

Putting a stop to these corrupt and predatory practices should certainly benefit street vendors. Yet such a policy may signal a shift in which vendors simply move from harmful informal arrangements to harmful official arrangements. The YCDC, for example, is fundamentally interested in moving vendors off the streets and into buildings.

Though selling on the streets is in fact illegal in downtown Yangon, authorities have long tolerated it, at least between the hours of 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. But the ultimate goal is to move street vendors into multi-story markets, where they will be offered a 4 square-foot compartment to sell their goods. The YCDC claimed last year that these markets are in fact approaching completion.

Government projects, such as widening Yangon’s streets to accommodate cars, have already had a less direct but still potent impact on street vendors’ way of life. As Zoë Blackler wrote for CityLab in 2013, the broadening of streets has meant the narrowing of Yangon’s wide sidewalks, long the domain of vendors, pedestrians, and cafés, thus forcing some vendors to find alternative spaces from which to sell.  

Many vendors have been upset by these projects and plans, especially the goal of moving them indoors. “If [the government] really offers [space in an enclosed market], I don't want to go,” snacks seller Ma Wathone told the Myanmar Times. “Our customers are here, near to my house, and we cannot carry our raw materials very far.”

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