Traffic Accidents and Structural Power

Re-reading the colonial judge Maurice Collis’ memoirs, Trials in Burma (1938), got me thinking about the history of traffic accidents. The final case that he discusses—the case that marked the beginning of the end to his career in the colony—hints at how traffic accidents could be understood as an expression of white privilege.

The particular case that he had to try was one involving a drunk British soldier who ignored stop signs and crashed his car at a crossroads severely injuring two Burmese women. Collis goes on to describe how he sentenced the soldier to two months’ imprisonment for the crime (although this was eventually overturned) and the outcry against him that resulted from the bulk of the white British community. The case illustrates the tension that existed between equal justice and white privilege in colonial contexts. But what caught my eye most recently was a brief comment he made about the frequency of these types of cases:

During my time at Rangoon I had already tried some three or four Europeans for running over Indian or Burman pedestrians on each occasion being able to acquit them of criminal negligence, either because it was the pedestrian’s fault or for lack of evidence.

Setting aside the clear obstacles to getting justice in individual cases of dangerous driving that Collis’ book shows, there is also a wider, more impersonal power relationship at work here. Put starkly: (mostly) white drivers, brown pedestrians. Any car accident was always likely to be an expression of the relative privilege of the colonisers over the colonised.

Maybe the history of traffic accidents—their frequency, who they involved, and how they were dealt with legally—might offer insights into the changing shape of structural power in Myanmar’s recent history. Certainly in Yangon the dramatic increase in the number of cars on the road is one of the most visible changes in the city of the last few years, save perhaps for the appearance of numerous construction sites or mobile phone shops.

The traffic on Sule Paya road.
The traffic on Sule Paya road.

The almost doubling of vehicles within the last eight or so years has led to an increase in collisions and resulting fatalities. But, at least according to data produced by the Yangon City Development Committee and Mizzima news cited (but not really analyzed) in an Al Jazeera article from last year, the increase in crashes does not seem to have increased at the same rate as the number of cars, and the number of deaths per collision has reduced from 23 out of 100 in 2012, to 16 in 2014. Nevertheless, when accidents do occur—as a friend in the city, who had been unfortunate enough to be involved in an accident, but fortunate enough not to have been hurt, recounted to me—the perceived race and class of those involved still affects people’s responses. Bystanders often don’t want to attract unwanted attention to themselves from the authorities.

However, the most noticeable affect is the gridlock. The removal of restrictions on owning cars has made them affordable to a greater number of people, but the city’s infrastructure has not been adapted quickly enough to allow these new drivers to drive around freely—if not a reflection of structural power, this might be a metaphor for wider political reforms.

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