Interview with Claudio Sopranzetti: The politics of motorcycle taxis

“Motorcycle taxis live in the cracks of Thai society”

Claudio Sopranzetti, a PhD candidate at Harvard University, is writing his dissertation on motorcycle taxis and politics in Thailand. It is the first time an academic study deals thoroughly with this topic.

Arnaud Dubus: First of all, could we give an outline of how the moto-taxis are organized. I suppose they have leaders. But are they organized by areas, by pak soi? Is there a kind of hierarchy?

Claudio Sopranzetti: All this has a lot to do with politics and with their involvement in politics. There has been a change in 2005 done by Thaksin both in the internal organization of the groups and in the organization of the system. That is one of the reasons for their connection with Thaksin.

Before 2005, every win, i.e. every group of motorcycle taxis, was organized independently, by a local mafia — what they call pu mi ithipol, local influential people.  They tend to be very often policemen or army or thesakhet.  These influential people would say: in this area that I control, we will have a group here, a group here, a group here and here… And everybody in the motorcycle taxis group had to pay a daily fee for the vest which produced and distributed by these influential people as well as for being on the “territory”.  It was the cost of the vest or the cost of queuing.  The big problem was that these fees were collected regardless if the driver was working or not.

Most of these motorcycle taxi drivers come from the countryside. During certain periods of the year, they go back to their province for harvesting and other agricultural works. Before 2005, they still had to pay the fee, even if they were not making any money. After his war on drugs, Thaksin started a war on dark influence. He pointed out five or six groups of different mafia: the massage parlours, the lottery, drugs traffickers, and the people who controlled motorcycle taxis.

This policy was an important symbolic reward. In those years, Thaksin was legalizing, formalizing the country. He said: from now on, every motorcycle taxi can register in his district office and we will distribute the vests for free to all registered people. The orange vests with BMA symbols come from this. By doing this, Thaksin cut off, in theory, the control of the mafia.

These free vests were counted. BMA fixed a total number of vests. As they were distributed for free, a lot of people sold it. And many of those who bought the vests were the old influential people. For instance, some bought forty or fifty vests, and then rented them out.

Depending on your position and often your dimension as a group, you will have more or less dependency on local mafia. For instance, if you are a small group in an area which does not have many clients, you can organize yourself. These organized groups have a leader, or hua naa win who is himself a motorcycle taxi drivers. He supervises who gets in, who gets out, manages acceptance of new people into the group and exchanges of people between win and tries to solve the conflicts within the group.

In larger groups, there is also somebody on top, but very often these leaders are not themselves motorcycle-taxi drivers. They work for influential people and go to the win for money collection. In these large groups with many vests, people change very often.

The small groups are more cooperative-like and more stable. These are groups of friends, who go out together, who come from the same village and know each others’ family. In the largest groups where you have to rent a vest, there is a continuous flux of people. The daily work organization is the same in every win: everyone has a number and is part of a queue system. Every time there is a client, you put your number at the end, so that there is a round for everybody.

Arnaud Dubus: Did Thaksin become so popular among moto-taxi drivers because of his social programs and his policy against the mafia ?

Claudio Sopranzetti: There are a number of reasons. (…). First of all, many of the moto-taxi drivers are from Isaan, so they have seen the effects of many of Thaksin’s policies. You hear all these discourses about: yes, there is vote buying, they were bought off, they were given money to trust Thaksin. But if you actually talk to people, what comes out most often is the policies. Very precise decisions and policies that the government put on. I was with a moto-taxi, a good friend, back to his village in Isaan. We stayed there with his family. There was maybe one hundred families in this small village. We walked around. He told me: there are two things which are developed in this village. One is the school and one is the asphalted street. The school was built by Thammasat students in the seventies, those who after ’73 went up there. And the asphalted road was given by the village fund that Thaksin established. These are the two moments in my life I saw the State, he said.

There is also the feeling of being part of the stake group that actually receives benefits from this system. Many of the moto-taxis are part time farmers. Very often they are bread winners for their extended family. They are involved both in urban life and in rural life, which make both Thaksin’s urban policies for the poor and rural policies very relevant to them. It is one of the reasons why they are so interested to talk about politics. Because they are one of the few groups who really live the double dimension of this country. And not just in their lifetime, but in the course of a month, they are back and forth. So they know lifestyle differences, they know what this inequality is, they know all of it.

Arnaud Dubus: The role of moto-taxis in politics is not something completely new. There has been a tradition, most particularly in May 1992, when many people were saying Chavalit was behind them. What are the differences between what happened in 1992 and now? I suppose there have been many changes.

Claudio Sopranzetti: Part of my research is actually tracing the historical evolution of political participation. First of all, there is a distinction to be made. There are people who are motorcycle taxi drivers just as a passing job. They are moto-taxi drivers for two or three years and tend to be less involved in this political dimension.

And then you have those that have this work as a permanent job, for ten or fifteen. This second group tends to be more involved in politics, more involved in demanding different conditions for their work as motorcycle taxis. The members of this group traced back their political participation to ’92. I heard this many times  “if you want to see our political involvement, then take a look at ’92”.

It is interesting, because ’92 has not been historicized, has not been told as a working class episode. There is the stereotype of ’92 as a middle-class protest. In fact, many of the protesters came from Klong Toey. And the more radical ones were motorcycle taxis.

Actually, some of the drivers organizers involved today were already involved in 1992. Some of the political organizers of the motorcycle taxis, who went onto the stage with the Red shirts, were already politically active in ’92.

But many of them I talked to, they do see a difference. One told me once: in ’92, we really were motosai rap chang, we really were hired, we really were for rent by Chavalit and politicians like that. But their participation in the current protest has been more indirect. And one of the things they have been proud of is that they can mobilize themselves.

One thing they really tell with pride is: we are not going to go out unless we know we can win, because we don’t want to put our situation at risk. And secondly they developed more of a kind of Labour Union way of thinking. Saying things like we need to think about what is good for us as motorcycle taxis. One of them told me: we are not red shirts or yellow shirts, we are orange shirts, which is the color of the vest.

This time, they have been very able to juggle their political relations to the Red shirts in order to get help from the government on certain things. I give you one example. There is a win in Samut Prakarn, who has been there for a while. Before Thaksin, it was owned by a local policeman, a very powerful policeman in the district. When Thaksin changed the law, they registered themselves. It is a large group with good connections within the group. They decided not to sell the vest. They said we don’t want to go back to this kind of control, so we keep the vest or if you sell it, you must sell it to somebody else who is going to be a motorcycle-taxi.

They effectively cut off the presence of this guy. Two years ago, the policeman went back and organized two new motorcycle-taxis groups. The win I was mentioning is half way through the soi. The policeman established two illegal win with illegal shirts at the beginning of the soi and at the entrance of the market. So, he effectively cut them off completely from the clients. Unless you pass through the other win because you know the story, you are not going to reach them. And there is nothing they can do. They can complain and report this, but the problem is the authority in charge of this kind of issue in the district, which is where this policeman works.

So what did they do? Part of what happened with the Red shirts is that, after some of the (motorcycle-taxi drivers) went on stage, the military called them up, under the emergency decree, and told them: we don’t want you to go to the protest with the vest. You can go to the protest as a citizen, but not with the vest. The motorcycle taxis entered the bargaining process, went to the military and said: we have this problem, so you help us. The military stepped in, the two win closed down about a week ago, and everything is back to normal.

Arnaud Dubus: What proportions of the moto-taxis would you say are Reds?

Claudio Sopranzetti: A very high proportion.

Arnaud Dubus: Are there Yellow shirts among them ?

Claudio Sopranzetti: They are some Yellows, a tiny minority in most of the areas. I think it depends also a little bit on which area you are talking about. For example, Lard Prao is a largely Red area in general; practically completely red among motorcycle taxis. Sukhumvit you get more Yellows. There is a group in Sukhumvit that actually broke down because of political alignment, people in the group separated.

It is a very complicated scale of legality and illegality. If you are totally legal, you have a drivers’ license as a motorcycle taxi, a yellow plate on your bike and a vest with your actual name written on it. Then, it goes down. Some people have a vest, but don’t have a yellow plate on their bike, which means that they bought the vest from someone, but your name is not registered at the district office. Therefore, you can not register the motorbike. There is another group of people who just make up artificially fake shirts and sell them. The formal number that BMA has for last year is around 108,000. But the educated guess that has been put on is 200,000.

Arnaud Dubus: Is there a coordination between the different win, a kind of supra-organization ?

Claudio Sopranzetti: They have created six or seven months ago an organization that they have called the Association of the Motorcycle Taxis of Thailand (AMTT). It is politicized. It does not come from the Red shirts, but most of the people in the association know each other. Three years ago, when Thaksin came back after the coup, about 5,000 motorcycle taxis went to the airport to pick him up, most of them know each other from that day. So it is not a Red political association, but most of the network comes from that political moment.

The association is an attempt to formalize something which already exists. The president of the association has been the first person to legalize the win in Bangkok. He was on TV, in newspapers and so on. He was one of the organizer of the protest, after the law on the legalization was passed, to demand that the clauses of the law be really implemented. He was the one who organized the picking up of Thaksin by thousands of motorcycle taxis at the airport. He has a face that people recognize. Motorcycle taxis often read newspapers as they sit in their win. Any news on motorcycle taxis would attract their attention.

Up to now, the association has maybe 1,500 inscriptions. It is not a big association, but they have inscriptions from every district. They use the people who are members in the district to spread out the word.

There was a big meeting with the BMA on 4th of May. There were maybe 2,000 or 3,000 motorcycle taxis, who were not even members, but who, through this network, knew about it. So this organization is about formalization. Actually, it works surprisingly in a similar way as a trade union, in the manner it is bargaining with the government and the State.

Arnaud Dubus: The car taxi drivers played an important role during the anti-government mobilization one year ago because of their communication system, when they blocked the Victory Monument, at the time of the ASEAN summit in Pattaya. They were very efficient because of their radio network. They can spread information quickly. Do the motorcycle taxis have a similar communication network?

Claudio Sopranzetti: It is more informal, not like a radio. It is more based on cell phones and SMS. But this time, the motorcycle taxis had a very big role in intelligence, collection of information. Why? Because they are in every soi, they know the territory better than anybody else. They are very flexible. For instance, I am a motorcycle taxi who is also a protester at a Red shirt demonstration. I can put on my vest and become somebody who is working at the demo. I can also put on my vest, tell the random passer-by to jump at the back of the motorcycle, and I drive him to army-controlled Silom, doing my job.

They are collecting different kind of information, like for instance on troop movements. They provide intelligence to both sides, depending on group affiliation, because some groups are affiliated to the government; for instance in Dusit district a lot of motorcycle taxis are also military. There is often this overlapping of different jobs.

I give you one example. There was a rumour one day that Abhisit was in his house, around the 8th of May. They collected 300-400 motorcycle taxis at the protest site and said: let’s go. They went there to scare him off. He was not there and they came back.

Also at the beginning of April, there was one time when the Red shirts thought they were going to be attacked by the military. Dr Weng (Tojirakarn) went on the stage and said: we need 500 or 600 motorcycle taxis to go to every exit, write down your name and your phone number, so that if we need something we can contact you. They were asked to go around and observe the movements of troops in the city. They are very useful for this kind of thing – observing the military movements, where troops are stationed. Also many of the guards were also motorcycle taxis, even they provide the personal guards of big people. Why? Because if you have to run away, then the motorcycle taxis are the best persons you can rely on. They know back streets, they know everything. It is easy for them to disappear.

Arnaud Dubus: In which other activities were the motorcycle taxis involved in during the political crisis of March-June this year? Were there, for instance, involved in some violent acts? Were some of them armed with real weapons?

Claudio Sopranzetti: I have not seen anyone armed on the field. Before the 19th of May, I have seen two persons with weapons, running around with guns in hand. It is a very small number, although I may not have seen as many as I should have. It also depends a little bit how you define violence, but, yes, some were involved in a number of practices.

I was often in Bon Kai during the fighting. At the end of soi Sawan Sawat, there is a park through which you can go to get to Lumphini Tower. Some people were staying there, moving and burning tires. A big number of them were motorcycle taxis from Khlong Toey. Were they organized by someone? Were they sent there by someone? I don’t think so. They support the protests and they have a kind of reputation for doing for being jai rawn (hot headed).

Arnaud Dubus: It was said that some of them get a small amount of money to participate in the demonstration ?

Claudio Sopranzetti: It is true for those working as guards. The issue of payment for demonstrations is a tricky one. This money is seen as used to pay for a service, in the sense that guards would be paid to be guards, for doing the job. But receiving money to join the demonstration, it seems really odd. 200 baht is probably less than their daily average income. A motorcycle taxi who is in a good spot is making 400-500 baht per day, which converts to 10,000 to 15,000 baht a month. It is a fair amount of money.  A university professor told me: they make more money than I do.

Another element is that this job is perfect for what they need. They say: when I had another job before, if there is some business I have to take care of at home, I can not. If I leave I don’t get paid or I lose my job. Motorcycle taxis are free to go and come.

At the policy level, the questions is: why do the people like one person for his policies but do not like another one who implements similar policies? One of the first things Abhisit did as Prime minister was to give support packages of 2,000 baht for the poor. The package was given to people who have a monthly income of less than 15,000 baht. All of these people do not have a monthly income. The government does not really understand what poverty means. He is cutting off real poor by giving money to the people who are actually not poor.

The motorcycle taxis can see the differences between two different governmental policies because of the definition of poverty these governments have. I would guess it is similar among streets vendors, however I haven’t had really interesting political conversations with food vendors for instance. I think maybe as a food vendor you become more a Bangkok person. There is also a gender factor: women tend to be less involved in hardcore politics as they have to take care of their family. Motorcycle taxis get in Bangkok through their personal network. I know someone from my village, or a friend of a friend of my village, I come to Bangkok, I don’t have education, I want to become motorcycle taxi, I got to talk to that friend of a friend, who introduces me to another friend… They have very few real, meaningful contacts outside the Isaan community.

Arnaud Dubus: I find what you said quite interesting: they have a dual vision by their rural origin and by their urban life. It seems also obvious that the motorcycle taxis network is very much based on personal relationship network, which is the basis of the Thai culture and Thai political culture. It is almost a perfect example of this personal relationship network. More than street vendors who are not organized as groups.

Claudio Sopranzetti: Most motorcycle taxi have surprisingly close relationships to people who are clearly upper class, because these high class people use them. If I am a wealthy man, I send my servant buy food from streets vendors. If I am a really wealthy man and I run a company, I have one or several messengers who are motorcycle taxis. I use them constantly, so I need to have trust in them and I need to know who they are. I need them to believe I am a friend and they need me to believe I am a friend.

There is this constant talk about phu yai among motorcycle taxis. Which phu yai do you know? Which phu yai can help you? Random things… One motorcycle taxi told me he was hoping a French priest he knows at Saint Louis (Church) could somehow finance his daughter’s education to some extent.

Motorcycle taxis are involved with a wide spectrum of classes. They do different services for different classes. They know police, they know army, they know government officials, they know really wealthy people.

This is precisely that contradiction I was talking about. On one side you have this vision that the motorcycle taxis are unsafe, dangerous, drunkards. Everybody has a story about them knocking their knees against a car. Many of these accounts are not true, although it sometimes happens. But my question is how many of these stories are just a narrative dimension of their presence in the city.

Motorcycle taxis are in the cracks of many things. This being in the cracks is both physical and metaphorical. Look at their movements inside traffic: they make space where there is no space. They move in the cracks both within traffic and within society. They move in between classes, in between buildings, in between cars.

These are people who are incredibly central to the city, yet incredibly marginal. These are people everybody uses every day. There are 200,000 motorcycle taxis in Bangkok. Each of them makes normally 20 to 30 trips per day. Let’s say 20. That is four million trips a day. Skytrain and subway together do not reach a million trips a day. This is a massive means of transportation in the city.

If you look at studies done by researchers on transportation in Bangkok, there is nothing on motorcycle taxis. Transportation studies look at the whole trips, and the motorcycle taxis trips are just a fraction of the trips. They just don’t appear. But in fact everybody has a story on motorcycle taxis, everybody uses them.

Part of the Vietnam War’s era cooperation between the United States and Thailand was urban planning advice. A team from MIT came here in the sixties and drew the first master plan. The objective was to transform Bangkok into a car-based city, by filling up canals and building highways which were going straight into the centre. With these highways, the centre started developing. And the owners of the land wanted to make money fast, so they gave streets to develop. They did not have any street developing methods. They developed mega-blocks with very small soi. This makes public transportation impossible. Either everybody uses a car and the traffic becomes unbearable, or you need a form of transportation that brings you from your home to the bus station, the skytrain station, the offices… and this form of transportation is the motorcycle taxi.

Without them, the city does not function. A motorcycle taxi organizer told me: if somehow all motorcycle taxis collectively decide not to go to work for one day, the city would be paralyzed. That is an important amount of power. And yet they are completely marginal, much more marginal than the streets vendors. They are part of the landscape; people don’t reflect on them.