Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The Orange Vest

Motorcycle taxi stands are dotted throughout Bangkok. Probably thousands of them, they are little more than the parked motorcycles and their operators lounging around waiting for fares. If the location is adjacent to an empty lot they might have a simple bench and lean-to banged together, maybe a hammock or two strung out and the always present game of draughts (checkers) going on between two riders with a handful of others looking on. The board is a piece of found wood with the squares drawn in and the pieces are bottle caps, opposing players using either right-side up or upside down caps to distinguish them.

Walking through the streets of Bangkok on any given day you can walk past dozens of such stands with as few as 5 or as many as 30 motorcycles and riders waiting for customers. You also see hundreds of such drivers blasting recklessly through the streets, dodging and swerving around cars that are stalled in traffic jams. One of their benefits is this relative ease of movement compared to cars. The trade-off is the danger of riding on the back of one with no real protection and subject to the careless driving of the fool in control and the other lunatics in traffic.

I've witnessed numerous mishaps involving motorcycle taxis. One woman I saw was wearing a long flowing skirt which became entangled in the rear sprocket, jerking her to the concrete. Most women passengers ride side-saddle as they are wearing skirts or dresses and they often preen themselves in a mirror or talk on their mobile phones oblivious to their close brushes with death.

All motorcycle taxi drivers are distinguished by the coloured vests they wear. Orange, red or yellow are the usual colours, the thin but seemingly durable vests an indication that the driver is "legitimate", like a substitute for the license that hangs inside most cabs.

The vests go for anywhere from 50 to 100, 000 baht plus ongoing monthly payments, the "licensing fee" paid to the local mafia who apparently control all such operations. Not a small sum (the average monthly income in Thailand is about 3000 baht) for the usually uneducated lower-class individuals who aspire to a steady income and the freedom of working relatively independently.

After last year's butchering spree in which at least 2000 were killed in the government declared "war on drugs", the brilliant fucker in charge of this nuthouse decided to cast the net even wider with the insane campaign labeled the "war on dark influences". It seemed like a license to blow apart the skulls of anyone the government decided fell under the vaguely ominous category.

However, there was at least one specific initiative as part of the new assault on logic and civil liberties that seemed to make sense. That was the announcement that the "motorcycle mafia" that controlled the two-wheeled taxis would be destroyed and the drivers allowed to pursue a legitimate livelihood free from extortion.

The first part of this ostensibly just attempt at cleaning up the racket involved instituting a license that motorcycle taxi drivers would have to buy from the government. This aspect became law but amidst the growing condemnation from the rest of the world regarding the drug war slaughter, the war on dark influences seemed to peter out.

The motorcycle drivers were forgotten, and many now say that they pay the government license fee while continuing to cough up to the mafia.

Where there is the noticeable absence of a government that is seen to be competent and just and concerned with the citizens, organized crime seems to have more opportunities to gain traction. Sometimes the mafia simply end up alerting the competition to a new and profitable enterprise...

Cross-posted at: Flogging the Simian