Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility and Politics in Bangkok

A Review of The Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok, by Claudio Sopranzetti

Written in prose that is often lyrical, in The Owners of the Map, Claudio Sopranzetti offers an analysis which refigures politics, space, and the heterogeneous intersections between them in post-2006 coup, late-reign Rama IX Thailand. The 19 September 2006 coup that ousted elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra inaugurated a period of political contention which extends into the present and the most recent coup by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) on 22 May 2014.  In comparison with Red Journeys: Inside the Thai Red Shirt Movement (Silkworm Books, 2012), his personal account of the April-May 2010 protests, Sopranzetti shifts into scholarship at once phenomenological and political in The Owners of the Map. Conceptualized as two halves comprised of a series of four chapters each, The Owners of the Map is an acute, inspired and inspiring work of urban and political anthropology with significant empirical, theoretical and methodological contributions. At the center of the story are motorcycle taxi drivers, the approximately 200,000 people who ferry people, documents, commodities, and themselves through the capital city Bangkok, and in so doing, chart a new geography. The motorcycle taxi drivers are almost exclusively male and the vast majority hail from Isaan, the northeastern region of Thailand. Sopranzetti does not only study mobility, but takes it as a methodological imperative: “my research …shifts between different disciplinary methods – from spatial analysis to participant observation, from archival research to cartographic mapping, from social history to visual analysis. Mobility, therefore, becomes not only the object of my analysis but structures its methodology” (p. 6). Drawing on nearly two years of fieldwork in between 2009 and 2011, he constructs a sophisticated ethnography that narrates the paths which led motorcycle taxi drivers to the capital and the experience of a particular form of dispossession, and then the paths which led them into the streets to protest and out to safety.

In the first half, a careful history of the city of Bangkok, migration, and multiple mobilities is woven together through ethnography, analysis of planning documents, and sharp engagement with a range of secondary sources. The story begins in Chapter 1, “Unsettled layers,” an examination of the material and geographic conditions of possibility for the emergence and growth of motorcycle taxi drivers. Chapter 2, “Riding in the city,” then offers a geography of the city born of experience and movement through both space and thought; Sopranzetti explains that, “… I move between the logic of the theorist and the planner – to whom the city may often appear as a text to be analysed or a map to be organized – and the practical logic of the drivers and the dwellers – who move through the palimpsest as pens, tracing trajectories and connections that engage and disrupt that text” (p. 55). In Chapter 3, “A train called desire,” Sopranzetti weaves together an account of traveling home to Isaan with Adun, one of his interlocutors, with a sharp critique of ideas of development, modernization, and the movement between the urban and the rural in Thailand. The train named in the title of the chapter refers to the train journey they take together, and the fine-grained detail of this journey lends power, and ever-necessary movement, to the analysis it frames. Then in Chapter 4, “Freedom and control,” the narrative begins to shift away from space and directly to the subjects who populate it: the motorcycle drivers at the center of the story. Sopranzetti traces the Thai idea of freedom (อิสราภาพ) as a complicated and heterogeneous idea and force in the lives of the drivers. Freedom does not equal simple liberation, but instead a spare alternative to post-Fordist industrial manufacturing and production. Freedom, central to many of the motorcycle drivers, is fleeting in practice but ever-present in imagination. The “double standards” of injustice which become central to the political conscientization tracked in the second half of the thesis are long-standing and historically sedimented.

Sopranzetti’s period of fieldwork coincided with the mass demonstrations of Red Shirt protestors and subsequent crackdown by the Thai state in April-May 2010. A total of 94 people were killed and over 2000 injured, the vast majority of them civilians. The protests were animated by a various of heterogeneous demands, but at their core, they were about who is permitted to participate in the governing of the polity. The practices of exclusion which structure the relationships between the urban and rural are felt politically and ideologically, not only economically. The four chapters of the second half constitute an ethnography of the protests — one that maintains a methodology of analytic and geographic mobility. As the protests move through the city, so does the anthropologist. The stage is set through a nine-page interlude about the geography of the protests and Sopranzetti becoming acquainted with Oboto, a politicized motorcycle taxi driver who is one of the key voices in the chapters that follow. In Chapter 5, “Infrastructures of mobilization,” Sopranzetti offers a historically-grounded characterization of the Red Shirt movement, which has been consistently misunderstood and only partially analyzed, particularly by English-language observers. He argues for an understanding of the movement as being comprised of three streams: Thaksinites (supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra), democracy activists (old and new liberal democrats), and radicals (those who want full restructuring of relationships between the elites and the people). Chapter 6, “Burning red desires,” then returns to inequality through a radical reading of desire. Sopranzetti’s analysis here offers a refreshing take on Red Shirt protestors which forcefully counters the slander of them as protestors for hire. He writes, “… a quest for democracy, access, and fairness is conceptualized through a language of needs and desires for both capitalist consumption and access to resources and services” (page 204). Acknowledging the former does not negate the urgency of the second, but rather reflects the reality of how deeply intertwined political and economic dispossession are during late capitalism. Chapter 7, “The owners of the map,” takes readers into the heart of the protests and their dispersal, a story shot through with both hope and devastation. Sopranzetti carefully analyzes the way in which the specialized knowledge of the city and its small alleys and lanes provided motorcycle taxi drivers with the ability to save their own and others’ lives during the April-May 2010 crackdown on the Red Shirt protestors. The final body chapter, Chapter 8, “We are not Reds, we are not Yellows, we are Orange Shirts,” temporally takes place post-protest and tracks the different forms of political reorganization enacted by motorcycle taxi drivers themselves and also the state’s attempted co-optation of them. As an account of a mass meeting of members of the Association of Motorcycle Taxis of Thailand (AMTT) with representatives of different state security organs demonstrates, agents of the murderous state are no less menacing when they are offering free helmets than when they are wielding guns.

In The Owners of the Map, Claudio Sopranzetti achieves the unity between careful theoretical engagement, particularly with the writing of Henri Lefebvre, and ethnography that foregrounds individual voices that is often sought after by scholars, but rarely successful. Much like the challenge to the urban space of Bangkok made by motorcycle taxi drivers that he traces in his analysis, the same motorcycle taxi drivers challenge fixed ideas of politics, capital, and the desires behind the urgency of social and political transformation. Some of the most unsettling of accounts of this emerge at the edges of his analysis. He quotes a bookseller at the April-May protests in Ratchaprasong, the glitzy, high-end fashion district of Bangkok who told him that, “the owners of the shopping malls are the people behind this government and the aristocracy. They don’t want the army to engage in fighting here. They will damage their property. We are safe here, protected by Louis Vuitton’s bags” (p. 230). This is a particularly acute moment for a variety of reasons. What does it mean – about the Thai polity, about the broader world – when it is not unreasonable for a person to think that the bags would be protected before the people? The Owners of the Map does not provide readers with an answer to this question, but it does offer us a way to ask and begin to answer the question.

The Owners of the Map will be of interest to scholars, thinkers, and observers concerned with critical studies of space, mobility and the urban, social movements and political subjectivity, and Thai and Southeast Asian Studies. Whether intentional or not, the thesis is also an hommage to the city of Bangkok. Through the accounts of the motorcycle taxi drivers who circumnavigate the city, and the anthropologist who joined them, Sopranzetti reveals the texture of the city: one full of both speed and languidity, tremendous possibility and also back-breaking sorrow and unfulfilled expectations and desires. The thesis is part of a broader wave of recently completed dissertations that contribute to strengthening urban studies in Thailand and critical analyses of the Red Shirt movement that move beyond description to offer new conceptual frameworks through which to grasp significance (See, for example, Yupaporn Tarungsri’s M.A. thesis on the aesthetics of the beautiful city and the dispossession of homeless people in Bangkok (ยุภาพร ต๊ะรังษี, การเมืองของ “ความงาม” กับการจัดการพื้นที่: สุนทรียศาสตร์และการใช้พื้นที่สาธารณะ ศึกษากรณีสนามหลวง (ปี พ.ศ. 2548-2554) [“The Politics of Beauty and Spatial Management: Aesthetics and the Use of Public Space, A Case Study of Royal Park (Sanam Luang) (2005-2011),” M.A. Thesis, Thammasat University, 2011]). See also Benjamin Tausig’s Ph.D. thesis on sound and the Red Shirt movement which uses a fragmentary form to offer an approach bridging form and content (Benjamin Tausig, “Bangkok is Ringing,” Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 2013). This kind of work is not only important intellectually, but is also part of the necessary reimagination of the world in which we live. In the final two sentences of The Owners of the Map, Sopranzetti offers a cautionary note to his readers: “A more daunting danger faces us: that of either overestimating the grip of power or seeing acts of resistance everywhere and in so doing erasing their significance. Both approaches have cornered the social sciences in a ‘praxis of political immobility,’ a position that, in times of mass mobilizations such as the one we are now living in, we cannot afford if we want to have any significance in the real world” (page 311). In December 2014, seven months after Thailand’s twelfth ‘successful’ coup since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932 and the most repressive regime in forty years, political immobility, and the academic analysis that sustains it, is not only retrogressive, but dangerous. The Owners of the Map presents readers with an alternative model for writing and analysis as action in a time of crisis, what might instead be called a praxis of political mobility.

Tyrell Haberkorn
Fellow (2014-2015), Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
Fellow, Department of Political and Social Change, The Australian National University
tyrellcaroline@gmail.com

Primary Sources
Ethnography
Newspapers
City Plans
Government Documents

Dissertation information
Harvard University 2013. 337 pages.  Advisor: Michael Herzfeld.

Image: Photograph by author.

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