In the spring of 2010, when as many as 300,000 political protesters from Thailand’s Red Shirt movement occupied Bangkok’s main commercial district, they were helped by an unusual ally: tens of thousands of motorcycle taxi drivers. With their ability to navigate obstructed streets, the motorcycle taxis transported Red Shirt leaders through otherwise barricaded parts of the downtown. And they carried messages, money, and materials to the protesters, including the makings of Molotov cocktails. Eventually the military used lethal force to chase the Red Shirts from the streets, killing about seventy of them. But the remarkable involvement of the motorcycle taxi drivers signaled a deep change in Thailand, a new willingness on the part of previously disenfranchised groups to defy authority.
After a couple of years of relative quiet, Thailand’s political turmoil resumed again a few months ago when the Red Shirts’ mortal foes, the Yellow Shirts, mounted protests that effectively prevented the government from functioning, and this time the army took over in a coup d’état. The resilience of groups like the motorcycle taxi drivers, however, is likely to make it difficult, and perhaps impossible, for the new junta to maintain undisputed control—or to turn the government over to any civilian party that the drivers and others like them view as deadly rivals.
Motorcycle taxis are a large and, more important, representative constituency. If you want to get someplace quickly in traffic-choked Bangkok, your best bet is to take a two-wheeled motorcycle taxi, even if it doesn’t feel entirely safe to weave through traffic the way they do, squeezing in the tight spaces between slowly moving cars. There are some 200,000 motorcycle taxi drivers in Bangkok, most of them licensed, some of them not, recognizable by the orange vests they wear as they infiltrate the traffic, or wait for customers under corrugated metal awnings. They make four to six million trips a day, which means that the motorcycle taxis carry ten times as many passengers as Bangkok’s smooth-as-silk rapid transit system.
These drivers are, in other words, indispensable for local transportation. They also have some political significance in a country now under military rule for the second time in the past eight years, and, by some counts, the nineteenth time since Thailand became a constitutional democracy in 1932. The junta is promising a restoration of civilian rule, but it wants this to occur somehow without the eventual reelection of the democratically elected party it just forcibly removed from office. The motorcycle taxi drivers show that this might not be easy to do.
Like Bangkok’s waitresses, factory workers, chambermaids, domestic servants, and prostitutes, most of the motorcycle taxi drivers come from Isan, the northeastern provinces bordering on Laos. The people from Isan are darker complexioned than the predominantly Sino-Thai population of Bangkok. They speak with a recognizable accent. In the past they were the butt of country-bumpkin jokes. Bangkok mothers would tell their children that if they didn’t work hard in school, that’s how they would end up—as motorcycle drivers waiting at sweltering intersections to take passengers places for the equivalent of a dollar or two a trip.
According to an Italian anthropologist, Claudio Sopranzetti, who wrote his Harvard Ph. D. thesis on the Bangkok motorcycle drivers, they perfectly illustrate the coming to political awareness of Thailand’s rural people, whose demands for inclusion and enfranchisement are at the heart of the country’s continuing political crisis. For years, driving the streets of Bangkok, ferrying goods that they couldn’t afford and passengers whose material lives were vastly superior to their own, these drivers had what Sopranzetti calls a daily experience of inequality, though this awareness didn’t matter much politically in Thailand where, perhaps encouraged by a certain Buddhist quiescence, the tendency of the poor upcountry people was to assume that little could be done to change their lot in life. While their condition, like that of the rural poor in general, was not a matter of indifference to the country’s various governments, nor was it a major priority.
But, as in other countries, as large numbers of migrants left rural areas for the cities, where wealth was concentrated, consciousness of inequality grew and it began to matter politically. In Thailand it did so rather abruptly, in 2001, when the telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra successfully ran for prime minister on a populist program. Born and raised in an upcountry town, Thaksin began diverting resources that had previously gone to Bangkok to the rural provinces—in the form of micro-loans, new health care benefits, and one-time infusions of cash for village projects, like paved roads.
Back in Bangkok, the motorcycle taxi drivers had largely existed in the shadows of the informal economy, where they were prey to organized criminals and corrupt police to whom they paid protection money. But Thaksin started issuing licenses for them, and that’s when they began wearing the orange vests so familiar in Bangkok today, each vest something like a taxi medallion, with a market value to it. In exchange, the drivers pay an annual tax, which, in Sopranzetti’s view, was an important step in their emerging political awareness because it gave them a sense of entitlement that they didn’t have before.
Sopranzetti, who is now a visiting scholar at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, cites one of his motorcycle taxi driver informants, a man he calls Adun, on the psychological effect of Thaksin’s licensing and taxation scheme. “Thaksin told us that we pay taxes and, therefore, state officials work for us,” he wrote in a paper he presented at a recent university colloquium. Thaksin “rephrased poverty as a lack of state support. He recognized the motorcycle taxi drivers as economic actors to whom the state had to offer a structure of inclusion.” The drivers were grateful. More important for national politics, they were part of a much more profound shift in voters’ interests, one that was propelled by large majorities of rural people whose lives had been changed by Thaksin’s policies. In 2005, with overwhelming support in the rural provinces, he was reelected in the biggest landslide in Thailand’s history.
But many others in Thailand, generally referred to as the Bangkok elite, worried, not without some reason, that Thaksin, who further enriched himself while in office and tended to run roughshod over opposition, was a kind of elected dictator in the making. His strong backing by rural voters who had previously stayed out of politics lent urgency to this worry. Many from the country’s traditional centers of power—the political and military leaders and people close to the royal family—feared that, with his enormous appeal to the rural masses, Thaksin could never be voted out of office.
Thaksin’s opponents, known as the Yellow Shirts, staged large demonstrations against him in Bangkok. Then, in 2006, he was removed from office in the first of the country’s two recent military coups. The pattern followed by Thai politics ever since was set: Thaksin or, since the 2006 coup, a stand-in for him (he was forced into exile in 2008 and lives mostly in Dubai) has won every election to be held in Thailand since 2001, only to be removed by non-electoral means—most recently by the current junta.
In reaction, each time a pro-Thaksin government is removed from power, there has been an angry mass reaction in the form of protests by what have come to be called the Red Shirts, consisting largely of the newly enfranchised rural people, including the motorcycle taxi drivers, calling for their democratically-expressed will to be respected. The Red Shirt demonstrations culminated in the 2010 occupation of central Bangkok, in which the motorcycle taxi drivers provided the crucial logistical support. This involvement marked another step in their awakening to the political process. For the first time in their lives, as Sopranzetti puts it, the motorcycle taxi drivers “challenged state power.”
When, in May, 2010, the military moved decisively against the Red Shirt protesters with tanks and guns, their rivals hoped it be the end of this mass movement. But when new elections were held the following year, the pro-Thaksin party easily won yet again. Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, became the latest of several Thaksin proxies to serve as prime minister. She served for three years and then, after a complicated sequence of maneuvers, she was removed from power and the current junta took control.
The motorcycle taxi drivers have long since returned to their orange vests and busy intersections. I spoke to a dozen or so of them, and their main complaint was that the coup has harmed the tourist trade, so they have fewer customers. The junta has essentially banned criticism of itself—curbing the press and threatening to punish open dissent—and the drivers, like many Thais, are maintaining a discreet silence. But the underlying problem faced by Thailand’s new leaders would seem to be the same as the one faced by the junta of 2006, and the one faced by the caretaker government after the crackdown of 2010. It is that people like the motorcycle taxi drivers are no longer the country bumpkins who used meekly to submit to authority. They are a politically-engaged population spread across the heart of the capital, on every street corner—part of an electoral majority that has challenged the power of unelected governments again and again, and they aren’t going away.
Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.