Motorbike taxi drivers root for Thai protesters

Congregating around demonstrations in their signature orange vests, the drivers are also helpful as look-outs.
Congregating around demonstrations in their signature orange vests, the drivers are also helpful as look-outs.PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK • Orange-vested drivers of motorbike taxis have become allies of Thailand's pro-democracy protesters gathering across traffic-snarled Bangkok, offering lifts and keeping an eye out for trouble.

When the authorities shut down train lines this month in an effort to curb daily rallies, drivers of the capital's motortaxis came to the rescue, ferrying stranded protesters to demonstration sites.

But they have long waited on the sidelines of the youth-led movement, cheering student leaders on as they demanded the resignation of Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha and issued unprecedented calls for reform to the kingdom's monarchy.

"I root for these kids," said driver Supatr Manapornsiri, 41, adding that he keeps his prices low because he supports their goals. "My income has increased a bit," he said, saying it jumps from 1,000 baht (S$43.70) a day to 1,300-1,400 baht during protests.

Another driver Pakin Kamhamauk, 44, sometimes grants free rides, saying: "If they happen to have no money, then that's fine."

Motortaxis may appear a haphazard transport option for Bangkok's traffic-clogged roads, but there is order in the chaos, with passengers lining up on specific street corners to wait for drivers.

Congregating around demonstrations in their signature orange vests, the drivers are also helpful as lookouts. Earlier this month, when the authorities deployed water cannon for the first time since protests kicked off in July, it was the drivers who rushed to provide early warnings and later blockaded some roads so activists could escape the riot police.

Mr Supatr said he worries for the mostly young protesters, who have rallied peacefully for their goals. "They're well disciplined. They don't go off to do stupid things," he said. "I want every single one of them to be safe."

Thailand has a history of street politics turning violent, with massive demonstrations in the past prompting tough crackdowns from the authorities.

Motortaxi drivers have aligned themselves in previous protest cycles with the so-called "Red Shirts", mostly working-class blocs supporting ousted populist premiers Yingluck and Thaksin of the prominent Shinawatra clan.

While today's growing movement is fronted by university students, the drivers - who often hail from rural north-eastern provinces and Bangkok's slums - have gamely jumped on.

Dubbed by some as the "Orange Shirts", a play on Thailand's colour-coded political factions, motortaxi drivers can snake through tens of thousands of protesters, leaning on their intimate knowledge of the capital's backstreets. "If there are protesters who faint, we're usually the first to help them out," driver Yom, 49, who declined to give his full name, said.

Happy to support a movement seeking to oust Mr Prayut, he said the former military chief has done little to boost Thailand's ailing economy since the 2014 coup that brought him to power.

"He doesn't know how to manage a single thing," Mr Yom said. "The country keeps edging closer to a cliff. I think it's time to replace him with someone new."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2020, with the headline 'Motorbike taxi drivers root for Thai protesters'. Print Edition | Subscribe