Orange-vested drivers of motorbike taxis have become allies to Thailand’s pro-democracy protesters gathering across traffic-snarled Bangkok, offering lifts and keeping an eye out for trouble.
When authorities shut down train lines this month in an effort to curb daily rallies, drivers of the capital’s motor taxis 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 Prayuth Chan-ocha and issued unprecedented calls for reform to the kingdom’s monarchy.
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I want every single one of them to be safe
Supatr Manapornsiri, driver
“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, indicating it jumps from 1,000 baht (US$32) a day to 1,300-1,400 baht during protests.
Another driver Pakin Kamhamauk, 44, sometimes even grants free rides. “If they happen to have no money then that’s fine,” he said.
Motor taxis 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.
In October, when 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 safely escape riot police.
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 authorities.
Motor taxi drivers have aligned themselves in previous protest cycles with the “redshirts”, 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 northeastern 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, motor taxi drivers are able to 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,” said driver Yom, 49, who declined to give his full name.
Happy to support a movement seeking to oust Prayuth, 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,” Yom said. “The country keeps edging closer to a cliff. I think it’s time to replace him with someone new.”
With Thai protests intensifying against the monarchy, Prayuth’s hold on power is growing more tenuous by the day.
A poll published this week by Bangkok’s Suan Dusit University showed more than 62 per cent of participants said discontent with Prayuth was the key reason for the recent demonstrations.
The former army chief has run Thailand for more than six years, taking power in a 2014 coup and returning as premier after elections last year under a constitution produced by his military regime.
Much like the Hong Kong protests, which made demands for democracy that threatened an entrenched power, the Thai demonstrators are looking to upend the royalist elite that has run the country for much of its history. While China managed to stem large-scale protests by implementing a repressive national security law, Thailand’s leaders potentially face a greater risk with a more aggressive response.
Any action that leads to bloodshed – which has occurred throughout Thailand’s history, most recently in 2010 – could further hurt an economy dependent on trade and tourism that is already reeling from the pandemic.
Prayuth would only consider resignation if the government loses legitimacy due to using force on protesters or an economic crisis, according to Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, head of the Department of Government at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science. “The government for now still has the upper hand,” she said.
Even if Prayuth goes, the system that allowed him to take power without standing in the election is still in place. The constitution now gives the 250-member Senate, which is appointed by the military, a vote for the prime minister along with the 500-member lower house – stacking the odds in favour of the establishment candidates.
Possible replacements for Prayuth include Deputy Premier Anutin Charnvirakul and former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, who were both nominated for prime minister during the last election. But if they do not muster enough support, the charter allows for the possibility of an “outsider” candidate to contest, with analysts saying that could include someone like Apirat Kongsompong, a former army chief who’s now working for the palace.
“The system was designed to keep the establishment in power, so it’s unlikely that they’ll do anything to change that structure,” said Punchada Sirivunnabood, an associate professor of politics at Mahidol University near Bangkok. “They may agree to either some changes to the constitution, or the government’s resignation, but not both.”
The final demand on changes to the monarchy is the most ambitious. Protesters have broken long-held taboos about publicly criticising the royal family, with demands for the monarch to no longer endorse coups, provide transparency in how funds are spent, and get rid of laws that stifle discussion of the royal family.
“The student demand for a reform to the monarchy is the least likely to be addressed,” said Christopher Ankersen, associate professor at New York University’s School of Professional Studies Center for Global Affairs.
“It’s not evident that this king would be interested in agreeing to them,” he said. “It is difficult to imagine him being convinced to ‘retire’ from the scene, relinquish day to day control over the kingdom or live out the rest of his days as a true constitutional monarch.”
Still, protest organisers like Jatupat believe they have momentum on their side despite the long odds.
“Each time we hold a demonstration, there are more and more people joining,” said Jatupat. “People are optimistic that there will be changes.”
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