Claudio Sopranzetti is an Italian post-doctorate student at Oxford University best known for his research on Bangkok’s motorcycle taxis. This handy (and at times only) mode of transportation through the often jammed streets of the Thai capital is hard to miss thanks to the drivers’ bright orange vests seen waiting at the end of almost every alley and street. Apart from bringing people from one point to another, they’re also hired as couriers and for other errands. In short: without them, a lot of things would happen much slower in Bangkok.
Sopranzetti’s research resulted in the PhD dissertation “The Owners of the Map – Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok” at Harvard University in which he draws up a fascinating ethnography of the riders, most of whom come from upcountry. He also credits them with a growing political participation and thus growing influence over the years, as evident most recently in the 2010 red shirt protests.
Here’s an Al Jazeera English report from 2010 shortly after the protests with soundbites from Sopranzetti summarizing his findings:
Last Monday, he held a talk at Chulalongkorn University on the same topic and this is how The Nation summarized it:
Motorcycle taxis played a big part in the 2010 red-shirt protests, a Chulalongkorn University (CU) seminar was told Monday.
Claudio Sopranzetti, a post-doctorate student at Oxford University, said the Pheu Thai Party had hired the motorbike taxis because they knew about Bangkok streets and alley-ways and could easily transport people to different parts of the city. Sopranzetti also pointed out that this gave rise to a red-shirt motorbike taxis group.
-“Motorbike taxis played a big part in 2010“, The Nation, July 7, 2014
[UPDATE, July 9, 2014: It appears that The Nation has quietly removed the article, hence why the link above will lead you to their front page.]
Somehow the main conclusion of The Nation (that’s pretty much the whole article) is the notion that the motorcycle taxis that supported the red shirts back then must have been bought by the then-opposition Pheu Thai Party, a persistent accusation until today. While there are overlapping interests among all three groups, it doesn’t automatically mean they’re one and the same as The Nation suggests here.
Unsurprisingly, Sopranzetti himself strongly disagrees with the report:
This is how news are made up in contemporary Thailand, I can understand censorship but this is something different. I have never said that “Phua Thai had hired the motorbike taxis” to join the Red Shirts. The drivers who supported the movement did it because of their own ideology, belief in democracy, and hate for double standard and inequality. The nation should be ashamed of calling itself a newspaper. They do not report news, they fabricate them.
–Facebook post by Claudio Sopranzetti, July 8, 2014
Indeed the political participation of the motorcycle taxis during the various political protests in the past isn’t really because of financial reasons, other than for the provided services. On this issue Sopranzetti said in an interview with New Mandala in 2010:
Arnaud Dubus: It was said that some of them get a small amount of money to participate in the demonstration?
Claudio Sopranzetti: It is true for those working as guards. The issue of payment for demonstrations is a tricky one. This money is seen as used to pay for a service, in the sense that guards would be paid to be guards, for doing the job. But receiving money to join the demonstration, it seems really odd. 200 baht is probably less than their daily average income. A motorcycle taxi who is in a good spot is making 400-500 baht per day, which converts to 10,000 to 15,000 baht a month. It is a fair amount of money. A university professor told me: they make more money than I do.
-“Interview with Claudio Sopranzetti: The politics of motorcycle taxis“, New Mandala, July 21, 2010
Talking to Asian Correspondent via email, Sopranzeitti also voiced his displeasure over The Nation‘s coverage of his seminar: “It is really an embarrassing bending of reality to fit a prejudice they have. I am just sad they [The Nation] used me for this.”
In related news, the military junta has briefly toyed with the idea of changing the orange vests and instead hand out new ones colored green. Also, registration would opened up for all and done by the Department of Land Transportation, as opposed to the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority in the past, who distributed a limited number of vests, but also for free.
The junta claims that this limitation is the reason is why the free vests are sold on by local mafia gangs for a large amount of money – something the original policy introduced in 2003 under prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was supposed to have solved. Nevertheless, unregistered motorcycle taxis run by local mafias would operate with these bought vests.
The new plan for unlimited registration of new taxis has raised some concerns about over-supply, to which a military official said that it would balance itself out. In the end, the junta decided to stick with orange for the new motorcycle vests, because the color is “more familiar.” There are some things even the junta can’t change that easily.