Taxi activists slide into reverse
A year after the military government took power, it still can’t find a way to win over urban taxi drivers, renowned for their strong political views
Lae is 28 and has been making a living by working construction jobs and waiting tables in Bangkok for most of the past decade. He is, at the moment, a taxi driver, a job he says is much less physically demanding than his previous occupations.
“I sit behind the wheel all night driving for four months, so it is going to take my muscles some time to adjust when I go home to Ubon Ratchathani to harvest rice at my farm,” he said. “But that is what I have to do.”
Mr Lae switches back and forth between rice farming and taxi driving, each for four months at a time. He and his family own their farm and he says the opportunity to capitalise on the land would turn him, and many like him, into a millionaire if he could “move it all to the city”.
Bangkok taxi drivers are living testimony to the disparity between urban and rural Thailand. The majority — who drive an estimated 80,000-100,000 vehicles in the capital — are from a rural background.
Most split their daily earnings between vehicle rent and savings. Working as a taxi driver offers relatively good earning potential, since it does not depend on the daily minimum wage, but the occupation is still perceived as a job anyone could do.
It is no wonder a large number of Bangkok taxi drivers have played a significant part in red-shirt protests in recent years.
Their daily economic and social struggle was transformed into a political one following the 2006 coup that saw the fall of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, whose policies, including a populist scheme on taxi ownership, sent money flowing out to rural provinces.
Mr Lae is not a red-shirt member, but he, like many other taxi drivers, is uninspired by the military government’s top-down way of doing things, which he says is bad for tourism and the economy.
“Only free politics can bring back the city’s vitality, which means more customers for me,” Mr Lae said. “I drive the night shift and I know people do not party like they used to.”
On the pulse: Thanapat Haboonpad says taxi drivers are good pollsters.
Tuned in: Prayong Sapmak listens to red-shirt radio stations on the job.
People power: Chinnawat Haboonpad organised taxi drivers to rally in 2006.
RED FOR A REASON
Many taxi drivers care about politics because the health of the economy directly influences their lives, but there are others motivated by ideology.
Chinnawat Haboonpad, a United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) leader and former Pheu Thai Party MP, was a Bangkok taxi driver for more than a decade.
As serving president of the Taxi Drivers Association in 2005, he attended a yellow-shirt gathering led by media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul. Mr Chinnawat was strongly opposed to the messages that Mr Sondhi and his colleagues were pushing at the time.
“Up until that point I was a fan of the Democrat Party. I loved [former PM] Chuan Leekpai,” Mr Chinnawat said.
“At the time, Mr Sondhi was pushing to oust Thaksin, who was prime minister, to the point that I felt it was disrespectful and insulting to the nation.
“In February 2006, I organised a gathering of 300-500 taxi drivers at the Royal Plaza to express our disagreement with Mr Sondhi.
“Later that month, around 4,000 taxi, tuk tuk and van drivers gathered at Baan Pra Arthit, Mr Sondhi’s office, to hand him our petition.”
A taxi community radio station operated by the association was central to firming up Mr Chinnawat’s network, allies and agenda.
At the height of political turmoil, the station operated with more than 20 DJs.
Some, though not all, were taxi drivers, who hosted shows from the station’s two studios on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road. Slowly, opposition to Thaksin’s detractors started to take shape.
“In March 2006, the group gathered in Chatuchak Park for a month, demanding an election, which was set for April 2 following the House dissolution,” Mr Chinnawat said.
After the annulment of that election and the coup in September that year, the group moved to a bigger gathering in Sanam Luang organised by anti-coup activist Surachai Saedan, before coming together with political allies under the banner of the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship, which was a precursor to the UDD.
But the May 2014 coup shut down the community radio station, putting an end to the prospect of any more such activities being organised over the airwaves.
Mr Chinnawat said members of his taxi network still hold pro-democracy views despite economic challenges and national setbacks. “There is no point having a gathering now. It is just not helpful,” he added.
Rally race: Taxi drivers were among 100,000 demonstrators at the height of protests in 2009. PHOTO: Thiti Wannamontha
In one of the incidents that led to the political violence of April and May 2010, a group of red-shirt supporters hurled human blood at the home of then prime minister Abhisit Vejjaiva, in a symbolic protest to call for his resignation.
Paisarn Janpan, 42, is a Bangkok taxi driver from Khon Kaen who was there that day. Mr Paisarn is not part of Mr Chinnawat’s taxi network, but attended the protest as a member of the peaceful red-shirt unit led by Weng Tojirakarn.
“The unit was comprised of volunteers who would clear the ground and prepare for the gathering before protesters arrived,” Mr Paisarn said.
“We were not security guards. We did not carry weapons. All of us wore ‘non-violence’ armbands.”
Mr Paisarn told Spectrum that he “first wore the red shirt” in 2009. One year earlier the People’s Alliance for Democracy had shut down Suvarnabhumi airport.
As an airport taxi driver, he witnessed the siege that escalated into a full-blown takeover of one of the largest international airports in Southeast Asia.
“Only a few trucks led the way in the middle of the night. Then when they saw there was nothing stopping them and the military failed to send in the requested troops, they started to appear in their thousands by noon the next day,” Mr Paisarn recalled.
The event spurred him to action. Between casual driving jobs, he was able to take leave and join anti-coup gatherings for weeks, even months at a time.
His driving work also allowed him an opportunity for education and he enrolled in a political science course at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2012.
“Accusations of ‘parliamentary dictatorship’ are used to attack politicians,” Mr Paisarn said. “I have a problem with that. To me, it is called ‘political stability’. ”
Asked whether the government’s plan to diffuse colour-coded political conflicts will be successful, Mr Paisarn argues it will only provide a temporary solution.
“The attempt to dissipate colour-coded politics is coming from the top,” he said. “People who support either the red or the yellow camp will still continue to do so through social media and other means of communications.”
IN PURSUIT OF JUSTICE
In the aftermath of last year’s coup, a group of activists, students and people from various walks of life formed the “Resistant Citizens” group.
Taxi driver Wannakiat Choosuwan, 36, is a member.
In February, he and other activists were charged with violating the National Council for Peace and Order ban on political gatherings.
Yet in April, the group commemorated the fifth anniversary of the April 2010 violence and is planning another event to mark the May 2010 crackdown on red shirts.
Mr Wannakiat has only been driving his taxi for a few years, but cites several reasons why taxi drivers are politically engaged.
“Taxi drivers are everywhere in this city. We live in cheap rented apartments and community flats. We work everywhere, from airports to hotels, shopping malls and markets. We see many different lives and we come from many different places outside Bangkok,” he said.
“We also listen to news on the radio for most of the day, so we care about social concerns.”
Mr Wannakiat said he joined Resistant Citizens as a member of the public, not as a taxi driver. He has not brought other drivers into the group, though he said most of his colleagues want to see the return of democracy.
“My activist agenda does not involve my job, which is driving. It is about freedom and democracy, which concerns the whole nation,” he said.
“I have asked some of my fellow drivers from the taxi garage to join me in activities, but only a few can make it because they have to work. However, they contribute money and moral support, and share my faith in democracy.”
Mr Wannakiat started driving his taxi in 2012 because it offered a more stable income than the contract work he’d been doing for various NGOs after graduating from Ramkamhaeng University in 2001.
After the 2010 red-shirt crackdown, Mr Wannakiat was part of the now-defunct People’s Information Centre and has maintained links with other protesters ever since.
Road show: The taxi community radio station mobilised drivers to call for the resignation of then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva during the anti-government protests of 2009.
In daily life, official taxi regulations and economic problems are a major cause of concern for most drivers. After a long wait, drivers finally secured an increase in meter prices early this year, from 1.50 baht to two baht per minute.
This is not the only area where drivers want change. “I want vehicle contracts extended beyond the nine-year cap for all taxis,” Mr Wannakiat said, adding that drivers who own their cars deserve to reap profits after they have finished paying instalments on vehicles.
Under the law, taxi drivers or cooperatives which own taxis are required to replace their vehicles every nine years.
Mr Wannakiat owns his taxi, but the majority of taxi drivers in Bangkok rent vehicles on 12-hour or 24-hour shifts at a rate of between 500 baht and 1,000 baht.
The rent payment is paid to the tao gae, or owner of the taxi rental company, on a daily or weekly basis.
According to Mr Chinnawat, most taxi drivers want to own their vehicles, to break free from the renting cycle that stops them reaping maximum profits.
During Thaksin’s tenure as PM, the Taxi Aua Artorn scheme gave drivers the opportunity to buy their own cars by making small down-payments. Mismanagement meant the scheme failed to provide the independence that drivers wanted, but it made many a fan of the former premier.
“I’d say the scheme went bankrupt,” Mr Chinnawat said. “Financial institutions set the vehicle prices too high and none of the drivers could afford to finish the instalments.”
Economic woes are still the chief concern for taxi drivers. “The NGV gas price has gone up from 10 to 13 baht,” Mr Wannakiat said. “And not many customers want to pay more for the meter price adjustment. I am happy I own my vehicle already, otherwise I’d face even more problems.”
ALL WALKS OF LIFE
Many taxi drivers consider themselves service sector employees. Prayong Sapmak, 71, has driven a taxi for three decades and says he loves his job. He meets customers with different political opinions, but that is all in a day’s work.
“When I listen to red-shirt leaning radio channels, a customer might say, ‘Why do like listening to these people?’ ” Mr Prayong said. “I just change the channel. I work in the service industry so it is alright.
“If I’m on my own, then I avoid listening to things that would be hurtful to a red-shirt supporter like me.”
The dynamism between taxi drivers and customers is what keeps Bangkok rolling. “Taxi drivers are the best pollsters,” middle-aged taxi driver Thanapat Haboonpad said.
“We have predicted correct outcomes to every election since Chamlong Srimuang won the Bangkok gubernatorial race in 1985.”
Mr Lae, the taxi driver from Ubon Ratchathani, is eager to explain why Bangkok taxis are notorious for refusing customers.
“If a group of three customers need to go three directions in one round, I tell them first that I will re-run my meter after each destination. If they are fine with that, it is fine with me.
“For a single customer, they could be refused if there was a traffic problem which affects profits for a shift.”
On the side window of Mr Lae’s car, there is a sticker that states he will accept all customers.
Mr Lae went to a training session on the issue, organised by the Land Transport Department. At the end of the session, drivers were given the sticker to put on their vehicles as a sign they will adhere to the regulations.
But Mr Lae hopes to see more in the way of serious policy-making to address the big issues facing drivers, rather than “petty” regulation.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s weekly televised address on Friday nights has done little to communicate the direction of government policy for people like Mr Lae.
“I just came back from my home town,” he said. “Friday night is usually quiet for us. Televisions are mostly turned off.” n