A kerbside view of Thai politics

On the day the doors of Phitsanulok Mansion were opened for Chalerm Changthongmadan, he felt his existence was recognised for the first time in his life.

Leader of the pack: Chalerm Chanthongmadan, middle, president of the Association of Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, queues up with other drivers. (Photo by Paritta Wangkiat)

The motorcycle taxi driver with a fourth-grade education sat in the prime minister's official residence, observing its Venetian Gothic-style interior while offering his humble opinions to representatives of Thaksin Shinawatra's government.

Chalerm's presence in the mansion followed Thaksin's launch of the "war on dark influence" in 2003 aiming to formalise informal businesses run by the "mafia" and "influential people" -- with motorcycle taxis or win one of the major targets.

A Buri Ram native and a former factory worker, in 1990 Chalerm was forced to leave his job at a factory after his boss discovered he had lobbied other workers to set up a labour federation to call for fair treatment and pay.

He invested his 30,000 baht in savings to lease a motorcycle taxi vest from the head of the win of one alley and shifted to driving as it didn't require much education.

Chalerm had to give a monthly share of his earnings to keep the job. Part of the money was to bribe the police to "facilitate win operations" and turn a blind eye to misdeeds.

Resistance meant threats and confiscation of the vest -- in other words, expulsion from the win. Such operations are widespread in Bangkok's motorcycle taxi business, which allows the mafia to take advantage of drivers.

"At the time, society treated us like slaves who had no rights to call for anything. We only got a little cash from election campaigners to vote for their parties but gained no improvements in our lives," said Chalerm.

But that day at Phitsanulok Mansion was a turning point for him.

Thaksin turned the mansion into a hub for people to lodge their complaints. Motorcycle taxi drivers secretly handed details of the mafia in their win, while Chalerm, a prominent supporter of motorcycle taxi formalisation, took part in examining win around Bangkok.

"It was the first time my voice could mean something," he said.

The move resulted in government seizure of the vests from the mafia. They were then distributed to individual drivers who registered with the government system. A driver could own only one vest, meaning drivers wouldn't be controlled by heads of the win.

In the post-Thaksin era, the mafia have regained power over the win. But Chalerm will never back down.

Joining hands with colleagues, he formed the Association of Motorcycle Taxi Drivers (AMTD) to confer official status on motorcycle taxi drivers.

When I visited the AMTD office in June, it was a clean, air-conditioned room with plenty of framed photographs of drivers. Some pictures showed them standing in line with high-ranking officials, policemen and business owners.

Chalerm appeared in a neat dress shirt under his orange vest. "We carry the image of professional motorcycle taxi drivers," he said.

He didn't hesitate to confide that he was a loyal supporter of the Pheu Thai party, a frontline red-shirt protester and an active citizen who believes in democracy.

"I always watched debates in parliament whenever possible. Politics can save the lives of the people, especially the grass roots like us. We can think. But others believe we can't."

PLAY BY THE RULES

There are reasons for motorcycle taxi drivers to cling to Bangkok, where the failure of urban planning has created a disastrous maze of sois that provide job opportunities for around 200,000 drivers. The majority are migrants from upcountry, mainly the Northeast.

Most of the drivers I came across shared the common experience of being employed in factories or companies before shifting to driving. Some were exploited by their employers. Long working hours provided little flexibility in increasing their income.

The mafia is a topic often mentioned when I asked long-term drivers about how they began in win. But it's not always the kind of mafia that involves guns and brutal violence.

Somnuek, 50, pointed at himself when our conversation touched the subject of mafia.

"I was a mafia," he said and pointed to other drivers. "He was too. That guy too."

Even an amulet seller near Somnuek's win also identified himself as a former mafia who rented out six drivers' vests before Thaksin's motorcycle taxi formalisation seized all of them.

Born in Kamphaeng Phet, Somnuek moved to Bangkok to work on construction sites 15 years ago.

He later rented a vest from a win, earned enough money to start an informal loan business and purchased 10 vests that he could lease to other drivers.

"Mafia" in his case is a person who has resources and can control the lives of others who are meek and voiceless.

Thaksin's formalisation of motorcycle taxis distributed resources to powerless drivers. In return, drivers pledged loyalty to him, which led them to join the red-shirt protests in 2010.

But that also led to his supporters including motorcycle taxi drivers being branded "slaves of populism" and "stupid", especially by the anti-Thaksin yellow shirts, whose protests, largely supported by the middle class and urban people, led to the coup that overthrew Thaksin in 2006.

The Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok by Claudio Sopranzetti, a post-doctoral research fellow at All Souls College at Oxford University, raises the point that the political will of motorcycle taxi drivers had developed prior to Thaksin's term in office.

Sopranzetti used the term "Thai-style democracy" to refer to "a moralised version of democracy under the Buddhist king predicated upon the selection of good people rather than representative institutions" -- a form of bourgeois parliamentary democracy which does not challenge the interests of the elite.

It uses the language of moral politics and civil society that emerged among the urban middle class, which is the main ideology of the anti-Shinawatra movement that called Thaksin and Yingluck bad and corrupt politicians, resulting military coups in 2006 and 2014.

Bangkok was reframed as the only space for true democracy and social change, writes Sopranzetti. The countryside, especially the Northeast, was seen as a space of ignorance, backwardness and corruption unfit to fully participate in democratic politics.

This perception has prompted the grass roots to participate in red-shirt politics. Sopranzetti interviewed several motorcycle taxi drivers, one of whom stated that "the government is slowing us down. They call us stupid and as a result they take whatever they want -- it is their mind."

But Thaksin's policies such as the Village Fund and 30-baht Universal Coverage Healthcare scheme -- controversially labelled products of populism -- succeeded in winning the hearts of the grass roots, skipping the power of the elite who monopolised access to resources and economic clout.

It triggered the grass roots to seek opportunities from the politicians they elect; in return, Thaksin gained support for his political pursuits. Learning from national politics, some motorcycle taxi drivers united as organised groups to gain negotiating leverage on their turf.

At a win on Lat Phrao Road, some 360 drivers have adopted democracy as their modus operandi.

Elections are held every two years, portrayed as a national election by setting up an election commission to recruit candidates. Members must vote to select 10 committees -- seven act as administration and three as investigation committees or an opposition party.

Annual debates, portrayed as parliamentary debates, are held for members to raise problems and criticise the committees.

Such self-operated elections have led to a drop in violence and brawling among win members. It has also increased their negotiating power with the state and prevented mafia influence.

While most of his friends are red shirts, Somnuek admitted that he voted for the Democrat Party in a previous election. He said he is bored of corrupt politicians, listing Thaksin among their ranks.

In many anti-election campaigns, the spectre of Thaksin is often raised to highlight the fear of returning corrupt politicians. This same reason has been cited by the present military government for delaying elections.

Somnuek shares the same fear but has a different point of view.

"I prefer games that follow the rules," he said. "People can live together if they respect the rules."

TWO LIVES

At a one-storey house painted in bright shades of pink and green, a blue-eyed cat relaxes at the front door.

Kotchawan Pongsiri, 45, a motorcycle taxi driver, rests on a sofa in the living room. His orange jacket is laid on a shelf. His wife is doing household chores.

The house is set in urban expansion area of Bangkok. He built it using his savings from long years driving and doing other jobs -- "anything I can do to feed my family".

His parents are farmers in Lop Buri as are his wife's family in Udon Thani. They left their hometowns to work in Bangkok two decades ago, climbing up the social ladder -- Kotchawan is now a small entrepreneur.

He purchased a pickup truck to operate a transport service, delivering stuff and carrying equipment for event organisers. He is>> >> also a messenger. He plans to live in Bangkok until retirement.

Kotchawan's prospects have slowly improved following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, with Thaksinomics playing a key role in boosting domestic consumption and managing asset reflation.

After the formalisation of motorcycle taxis, Kotchawan didn't need to pay the mafia at his win, which he describes as "shaking the burden off my shoulders".

Opening opportunities and job flexibility allows motorcycle taxi drivers like him to have "two lives".

Some drivers return home to work in the fields during the seeding and harvesting season, then move back to Bangkok during the dry season.

Some, especially those from Northeast, return home several time a year to join ngan-boon, or local rituals for making merit. They retain strong ties with families and communities -- such networks helped Thaksin win by a landslide in his second term.

For young drivers, joining a win is more for economic purposes. Some drive night shifts to pay for college tuition. Some work for companies during the day.

Leum Ta Ar Pak (Get Better Financial Status) by Attachak Sattayanurak, an economics and political history professor at Chiang Mai University, notes that economic dynamics are turning rural people into entrepreneurs.

They gather as a group and expand networks to create negotiating power in Thailand's top-down administration. They are more inclined to local administration, leading Attachak to suggest that the government should focus on decentralisation.

This has led to the new meaning of chao baan (villagers), not as underdeveloped people at the mercy of central government and the elite but as citizens that the state must respect.

Villagers have political views, a "rationality" based on the benefit they can gain.

HERE BY CHOICE

Sarcasm overshadowed the conversation whenever I asked motorcycle taxi drivers what they need from the state.

"Do we have the right to ask for anything?" was a familiar refrain.

"It's impossible to ask for anything," said Kotchawan. "But if I can ask for anything, then it would be a stable economy so everybody can have a job, then they can afford a motorcycle taxi. If everyone is doing well, so do drivers."

Over a decade of political instability, motorcycle taxi drivers have been hit by the economic slowdown.

In 2016, Thailand's GDP growth reached 3.2% after 2.8% growth in 2015 and 0.9% in 2014, according to the latest report from the UN's Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

Thailand's GDP growth for next year will remain tepid among Asean nations at a predicted 3.4%. Other countries will continue to see robust growth -- 6.7% for Vietnam, 7.6% for Myanmar and 7.1% for Cambodia.

Private investment in Thailand has been flat for the last three years, with only 0.4% growth in 2016.

Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor is expanding. Thailand was ranked the world's most unequal nation after Russia and India by Credit Suisse's Global Wealth Report 2016. Just 1% of the population control 58% of Thailand's wealth.

A stable political scene, following the election slated for next year, will be the way out, according to one motorcycle taxi driver.

The economic slump has attracted new blood to the ranks of motorcycle taxi drivers, such as Apichart, a 29-year-old Saraburi native who joined a win early this year.

After losing his job as an events organiser, there were no other job he could do but driving because of his secondary educational background.

A driver in his mid-40s said he had just joined a direct sales company to supplement his income as passengers opt for cheaper transport due to the economic slowdown.

Meanwhile, the mafia remain a problem for some win. Some drivers say mafia influence has even grown stronger.

The National Council for Peace and Order issued Section 44 to order soldiers to subdue mafia and influential people, which empowered soldiers to search the houses of politicians and individuals without a warrant.

Soldiers were deployed to examine win around Bangkok, then relevant authorities were ordered to set up a one-stop service fast-track registration for new motorcycle taxi drivers.

Unregistered drivers are able to register for legal status -- called the "bringing dark to light" method, which the military government has implemented in other fields including unregistered migrant workers and illegal fishing boats.

A driver at a win in the Lat Phrao area reported that ghost drivers in his alley have registered as legal drivers but ignore the rules of existing drivers' committees.

As national and local elections have been suspended since the 2014 coup, one motorcycle taxi driver gave his view that "it will only strengthen mafia", either in the form of bureaucracy or influential people.

On another day, I met Chalerm at his win. It was almost rush hour. We couldn't talk for more than three minutes at a time as he had to queue up with other drivers to take passengers.

As drivers waited for their turn, they often watched a communal television set switched to a news channel.

"Our members always ask when the next election will be held. It will return our dignity," said Chalerm, perhaps like when he was aware of his dignity at Phitsanulok Mansion.

"If you want our votes, prove that you can improve things at the grassroots level. Whoever can do that will be chosen by us."

Chalerm hit the ignition and left our conversation. Other drivers followed, lining up along the side of the pavement. They are here by their own choice.

PHOTO: Patipat Janthong

eager for news: A motorcycle taxi driver reads a newspaper while waiting for a passenger. Many drivers keenly follow the national and local political news.

a decent life: Prakaikaew Wiriyasatsakan, a migrant from the Northeast, spent her savings from motorcycle taxi driving to buy a house in Bangkok as well as a car.

down time: Motorcycle taxi drivers rest at their 'win'. The TV is often tuned to the news channel in the morning and entertainment in the afternoon PHOTOS: Paritta Wangkiat

upward mobility: Motorcycle taxi driver Kotchawan Pongsiri and his wife in front of their house in Bangkok. Driving offered them opportunities to become entrepreneurs.

in the shade: Motorcycle taxi drivers rest under an umbrella while waiting for passengers. Many migrated from the provinces seeking a better life in Bangkok.

raring to go: Motorcycle taxi drivers queue up at their 'win' as they wait for passengers. PHOTO: Paritta Wangkiat

PHOTO: Patipat Janthong

Back to top