Motorcycle Taxis: the Hidden Heroes of Protest

Thailand is in revolt. Protesters have taken the streets, day after day, gathering in the tens of thousands in defiance of the Thai government’s State of Emergency. Children as young as five are in attendance, students from high school to university make up the front lines. And as more and more protest leaders get arrested, new faces come to the fore – the loudspeakers are sometimes quiet, but the crowd remains electrified. In the middle of October, the country’s most politically significant month, we are witnessing a Thai Spring.

But away from the loudspeakers, the gathered crowds, the firefly-like lights of iPhones are the hidden heroes of today’s protest movement: motorcycle taxis.

The orange-vested, helmeted drivers usually weave their way through Bangkok’s traffic – but nowadays, they also weave their way through police blockades, form new blockades to protect protestors from oncoming police vans, and transport protestors from one BTS station to another as the government continues to shut down the BTS and MRT in an attempt to stymie the movement. They have become instrumental to the protestors’ ability to move “like water” – as their Hong Kong counterparts once did.

Thai motorcyclists have a long history of involvement with protest politics. ‘Owners of the Map,’ they were called by Claudio Sporanzetti, Assistant Professor at the Central European University’s Sociology Department. Their presence raises questions about who legitimately controls urban space – their freedom and flexibility always in defiance of the rational state.

Now, as the battle over Thailand’s soul commences, they have once again come to the front-lines to help people reclaim the country.

How Motorcyclists Have Always Helped Movements Move

“Much like in the everyday life of Bangkok,” says Sopranzetti, “the motorcycle taxi drivers are also an essential infrastructure for the protests. They can move in and out of traffic unnoticed, bring people in and out of the site of the protests, and scout the city for police activity.”

As narrated by Sopranzetti, the system grew out of a Navy housing complex in Soi Ngam Duphli, where an entrepreneurial Lieutenant called Somboon Boonsuckdi decided to illegally open a motorcycle station, renting out handmade vests that were used as informal drivers’ licenses, and paying out bribes to policemen to turn a blind eye.

What made the motorcycle business so widespread, however, was the confluence of four broader factors:

First, the arrival of millions of young, unspecialized migrants from rural Thailand in Bangkok in the late 1950s.

Two, the technological changes which meant affordable motorcycles flooded Thailand in the 1960s.

Three, the physical maze that Bangkok is with its sois and alleyways which means building mass public transit is nearly impossible.

Finally, the informal relationship between state officials and citizens which meant that people like Somboon and his motorcyclists could operate freely within a legal gray zone. 

“Started timidly in a small road,” writes Sopranzetti, “the system eventually came to be central for allowing the city to function regardless of its traffic jams yet remains a thorn in the side of city planners and their dreams of control.”

As early as May 1992 (or Black May, as it is known in Thailand), motorcyclists formed part of the radical core of protesters demanding change from the then Suchinda Krapayoon-led military government. However, as some later admit, many performed the role of motosai rap chang –  hired hands to serve politicians like Chavalit.

However, the Red Shirt protest was where motorcyclists played a critical part – not just in transporting protesters around the city, but performing reconnaissance on troop movements for protest leaders, and providing crucial intelligence on the city layout to other protestors. They did so not because they were hired, but because they truly believed in the pro-democracy movement. “We are not red shirt or yellow shirts,” one of them told Claudio, “we are orange shirts” – the color of the motorcyclist’s vest.

Both their knowledge of the city – and its dominant power structures – and their sympathies with disenfranchised Thais have made full-time motorcyclists vocal voices for democracy and inclusiveness.

A motorcycle taxi driver waits at an intersection wearing a face mask in Bangkok on February 2, 2019.

Motorcyclists Today

The night before October 16, a pro-democracy protest took place at Rajprasong Intersection. Tens of thousands of people were gathered, making the same calls for change: for reform of the institution, for the ousting of the Prayut Chan O-cha administration, and for the redrafting of the constitution. As nighttime approached, a phalanx of motorcycle taxis emerged – warning the protestors urgently that the police were approaching. Protestors dispersed.

On October 16, crisis: protestors amassed once again, this time around Siam, but police blockaded the area and fired water cannons and charged into the crowds. 16 were injured. People were outraged, stunned.

As protestors rushed to clear the scene, motorcyclists appeared once again to build makeshift barricades so the students could safely get home and avoid arrest.

Since then, the government’s strategy of shutting off BTS and MRT service has been undercut by protestors and the press traveling on motorcycles – among other forms of transportation – to protest sites, as people continue to gather in the tens of thousands. “A big thank you to the motorcycle taxi’s who took me around the protest site and broke nearly all road regulations known to man while keeping me safe,” Thai Enquirer journalist James Wilson writes, “they are often overlooked and underappreciated.”

The legacy of motorcyclists as a lynchpin of Thai resistance lives on. Behind the white ribbons and starry iPhone lights are the orange vests, keeping the movement moving ‘like water.’

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