Owners of the Map: Thai Taxi Drivers and the Redshirt Protests

November 30, 2013 • Online Content, The World at Yale • Views: 824

BY KELSEY LARSON

Dropping newspapers on the doorsteps of slumbering households, sliding their motorcycles through dense traffic, or waiting on street corners for their next fare, Thai motorcycle taxi drivers are a constant but often overlooked feature of Bankok, Thailand. But as Oxford anthropologist Claudio Sopranzetti explained on Thursday to an audience of approximately a dozen Yale students and faculty, these overlooked laborers have occasionally used their position as transporters of information, goods, and people to fight for greater economic opportunity for Thailand’s poor. His talk entitled “(Im)mobilizing Bangkok: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers and Politics in the Thai Capital” focused on the role Bangkok’s motorcycle taxi drivers in the Redshirt protests of 2010, when citizens surged into the streets to protest the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected president Thaksin Shinawtra.

In everyday Thai life, motorcycle taxi drivers serve as an essential channel for the flow of goods and people. In Bangkok, which Sopranzetti described as a “sprawling octopus” of a city, motorcycle taxi drivers collectively carry people on four to six million trips per day. This far outstrips the number of passengers carried on any other form of public transportation in the Thai capital. Motorcycle drivers develop an intricate mental map of the city’s narrow and twisted streets, allowing them to get to their destination quickly even when the city’s automobiles are paralyzed in traffic jams. With these advantages, motorcycle taxi drivers have become the city’s couriers of choice for people, newspapers and other light goods, and even gossip as they chat with locals while waiting for their next jobs.

For all of their mobility, however, motorcycle taxi drivers have historically struggled to turn their importance in keep Thai society running into societal influence. Dodging between cars on a motorcycle is physically exhausting even when it doesn’t end in an accident, and the drivers must rely on energy drinks to propel them through their brutally long workdays. Sopranzetti considers the treatment of the motorcycle drivers to be a form of economic exploitation: for all the risks of their jobs, they scarcely make a living wage. They are acutely aware of their poverty, too, carrying passengers to jobs in the wealthy central business districts and transporting iPhone shipments that they couldn’t buy even with a month’s wages.

As protesters, however, the taxi drivers became a vital part of the resistance to the government. They drew on their connections to local gossip networks to rally support for the protests, and they used their knowledge of Bangkok’s alleyways to scout the locations of government forces and to plan escape routes. When the protestors took over the central business district, taxi drivers directed traffic in the occupied zone, served as bodyguards ready to help the redshirt leaders make a quick escape, and even became makeshift ambulance drivers and guerilla fighters. At this crucial turning point in Thai society, the taxi drivers’ unique spacial mobility translated for the first time into political influence.

Though the protests have since settled down and the motorcycle drivers have gone back to their usual routes, the redshirt protests show a unique instance where an oppressed economic group turned their position into a source of power. As Sopranzetti explained, every network of oppression is “intrinsically riddled with fragilities,” often in interstitial spaces of mobility and communication. During the redshirt protests, the taxi drivers who had ridden along but never owned Bangkok’s streets briefly stepped up to become owners of the map.

Kelsey Larson is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact her at kelsey.larson@yale.edu. 

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