Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok

Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok

by Claudio Sopranzetti

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On May 19, 2010, the Royal Thai Army deployed tanks, snipers, and war weapons to disperse the thousands of Red Shirts protesters who had taken over the commercial center of Bangkok to demand democratic elections and an end to inequality. Key to this mobilization were motorcycle taxi drivers, who slowed down, filtered, and severed mobility in the area, claiming a prominent role in national politics and ownership over the city and challenging state hegemony. Four years later, on May 20, 2014, the same army general who directed the dispersal staged a coup, unopposed by protesters. How could state power have been so fragile and open to challenge in 2010 and yet so seemingly sturdy only four years later? How could protesters who had once fearlessly resisted military attacks now remain silent?
Owners of the Map provides answers to these questions—central to contemporary political mobilizations around the globe—through an ethnographic study of motorcycle taxi drivers in Bangkok. Claudio Sopranzetti advances an analysis of power that focuses not on the sturdiness of hegemony or the ubiquity of everyday resistance but on its potential fragility and the work needed for its maintenance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520288508
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/10/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Claudio Sopranzetti is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at All Souls College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Red Journeys: Inside the Thai Red Shirt Movement.

Read an Excerpt


The Unsettled Layers of Bangkok

A genealogy ... will never confuse itself with a quest for their "origins," will never neglect as inaccessible the vicissitudes of history. On the contrary, it will cultivate the details and accidents that accompany every beginning; it will be scrupulously attentive to their petty malice; it will await their emergence.

MICHEL FOUCAULT, Nietzsche, Genealogy, History

On October 3, 1983, THAILAND BUSINESS, a bilingual magazine, published a five-page article entitled "Soi Bikes." "Living in Bangkok nowadays," the article began, "you must have seen many different groups of motorcyclists ... operating a new kind of business by picking up passengers and taking them to their destination." Harnessing widespread curiosity about the new service and its operators, the magazine set out to investigate "who they are, when it first started, where the idea come from, how they operate the business, and whether it is illegal or not to earn money by using motorcycles for public hire." The article traced the growth of the system out of a Navy housing complex in soi Ngam Duphli, a few roads away from Bangkok financial center. It investigated the drivers' daily lives, their organization in informal groups clustering around a station, the rules of their queuing system, as well as the cost of renting the vests which all the drivers wore to be identified. While motorcycle taxi groups had been developing an internal organization, the magazine revealed, they operated in a legal gray area in which local police officers extorted money from them, acquired control over the groups' operations, and used the drivers as assistants in patrolling their neighborhoods. Even with the police involvement, the author concluded, the rapidly diffusing system offered potential economic rewards to local businesspeople willing to invest in it.

While the promises of economic return enticed the business community, legal diatribes regarding the new enterprise animated state bureaucracy. Inside their offices a debate over the safety and legality of using motorbikes for public transportation took place in much drier language. The Ministry of Land Transportation, which had banned three-wheeled rickshaws from Bangkok in 1960 because of their outdated slowness, found the new system of transportation dangerous, undeveloped, and unfit for their dreams of Bangkok as a modern metropolis. Resolved to outlaw the proliferating motortaxis on the grounds of safety, throughout the 1980s the ministry produced a wealth of statistical data on motorcycle accidents. At the same time, across town, another ministry found itself preoccupied with the new transportation system. In June 1983, a committee headed by the interior minister and the director of the Office of Policy and Planning began considering the legality of motorcycles for hire. According to Thai law at the time, vehicles registered for public use, marked by a yellow plate rather than the white one reserved for private use, had to be either three- or four-wheeled, such as buses, taxis, tuk-tuks, and the recently banned rickshaws. Motorcycles, one wheel short, would not qualify. Experts in the ministry debated: Should the limits of the law be expanded to incorporate this new mode of transportation? Should police officers, at least for the time being, arrest motortaxi drivers? What about their supervisors and group leaders?

As the ministerial bureaucracy discussed the legal minutiae of the driving code, the number of wheels allowed to a vehicle for public use, and the kinds of urban flows it wanted to sustain or eliminate, thousands of young rural migrants continued to buy motorcycles and transform them into sources of income. Motorcycle taxis responded to the needs of a rapidly expanding metropolis and thrived in this niche, spreading faster than legislators' decision making. Bangkokians grew accustomed to the sight of migrant men in colorful vests, perched atop their bikes, waiting to pick up clients. Their back seats became familiar to city dwellers and carried children, office workers, and local dwellers through smoky traffic during peak hours and poorly lit alleys late at night. Whether legal or illegal, this system had become part of their everyday life. In this legal uncertainty, police officers and army officials thrived. Realizing the potential of the new business, they took the lead in operating new motorcyclists' groups, rented out handmade vests that operated as drivers' informal licenses, or simply demanded money from existing groups in exchange for directing their gaze elsewhere.

Lieutenant Somboon Boonsuckdi, a navy officer who assumed the role of administrator of the Ngam Duphli motorcycle transport service — often referred to as the first motortaxi group in Bangkok — was the first to seize this opportunity. He told the Thailand Business's reporter that although the police refused him permission to open a station, he went ahead anyway and nothing happened to him, probably because he himself was a government official. His case was not unique. All across Bangkok, state officials like Somboon were expanding their hold over the new business, supplementing their meager official income with less transparent enterprises, as they had done and continue to do with prostitution, illegal casinos, and drug trade. In a dynamic known to Thai scholars as "using power/authority as influence," these officials were transforming formal authority (amnat) derived from their role in the state apparatus into influence (itthiphon), a form of control over the operations of the urban gray economy based on fear and indebtedness.

The diffusion of motorcycle taxis, therefore, raised questions well beyond transportation policy and road safety. Their presence engendered questions about who legitimately controls urban space; about freedom, desire, labor, and migration; about legal structures and economic relations; and ultimately about existing power structures, their brokers, and internal struggles. The new transportation infrastructure for Bangkok was much more than a solution for a traffic-ridden metropolis. It emerged as the result of political-economic, legal, administrative, technological, spatial, and epistemological transformations in the city. Yet, through its operations, it ended up solidifying, developing, and at times pushing back against those transformations.

In particular, four conditions of possibility, which came together in the 1980s, allowed the motorcycle taxis to appear. The first was a mode of administration: a set of formalized, yet often informal, interactions between state officials, citizens, and territory — the dynamic of transforming authority into influence — which emerged at the turn of the twentieth century and continued to organize street life in Bangkok. The second revolved around a group of actors: millions of young and relatively unspecialized migrants from rural Thailand who, from the late 1950s, provided the city with cheap labor. The third condition was technological: affordable motorcycles which flooded Thailand in the 1960s. Finally, a physical setting: the maze of long and narrow alleys, known as soi, which solidified in the 1970s and rendered extensive mass public transportation in Bangkok virtually impossible.

None of these elements emerged with motorcycle taxis in mind. They were not part of a unified strategy directed by state forces, government officials, local business people, or drivers. Rather they were the unexpected and unpredictable outcomes of a century-old struggle between aspirations to impose order on the city and the unbounded messiness of its everyday practices. The city in which the drivers started to operate in the 1980s was itself the product of this struggle, a material canvas on which state forces constantly attempted to superimpose new ordered layers but remained unable to erase or scrape away the stubborn persistence of existing practices.

The history of humankind is dotted by such canvasses, outcomes of the tension between scarce resources and the all-too-human pretense to leave traces and rewrite history. These objects are known as palimpsest. In antiquity, parchment was a rare and valuable commodity. As a consequence, the same piece of animal skin was reused, often multiple times, by erasing the previous layer and adding a new one. The results were called palimpsests, documents in which faint traces of the former writings remained visible between the lines. Over the centuries, these traces would resurface, enough to be readable, from the oblivion of history. Cities are like these documents. Favorable geographic position and easy access to resources, much like parchment in antiquity, have always been scarce. As a result, new urban conglomerates grow atop older ones, giant palimpsests onto which new configurations are constantly scripted. Walking around a city, any city, we are constantly faced by the traces of overlaying: warehouses that reveal the neighborhood's industrial past converted into yuppies' apartments; grooved cobblestone roads that remind us of a time when people moved on carriages made into walking streets; spaces underneath urban highways turned into small parks. Those traces are ghosts haunting contemporary cities and showing us the doorsteps of their past while drawing the contours of their future. Especially in cities like Bangkok, where informality and extemporaneous responses have undermined any attempt to plan, regulate, and control urban life, those traces are concrete reminders that everyday practices always spill out of the tidy paths that urban institutions, planners, and builders try to draft for them. Those paths always present themselves as "a truly radical break with history and tradition," and claim a clean departure from an imagined tabula rasa. Yet, they often fall short from these aspirations and show the signs of struggle between past and present, between the neat logic of blueprints and the concrete messiness of reality. The result is a different type of order, one generated though repetition, uncontrolled flows, and eruptions, rather than top-down plans. This order itself is constantly challenged, exceeded, and reshaped, in an infinite cycle of thwarted plans, resilient practices, and contingent responses that make up the apparently stable — yet ever shifting — entity that people understand as Bangkok.

Motorcycle taxis were one of those responses. Started timidly in a small road, the system eventually came to be central for allowing the city to function regardless of its traffic jams yet remains a thorn in the side of city planners and their dreams of control. To explore the conditions of possibility for emergence of motorcycle taxis — whether in terms of physical forms, technological tolls, migrant bodies, or administrative relations — means therefore necessarily to excavate those Icarian dreams, their doomed attempts to control flows and impose order, the multiple layers they generated, and the struggles they underwent at each level. It means, in other words, conducting an archeology of the fragile history of urban layers, orderings, and practices that gave birth to motorcycle taxis in the 1980s but started with the founding of Bangkok.


Bangkok began as a floating shop, moored near the mouth of the Chao Praya River, downstream from Ayutthaya, the capital city of the eponymous kingdom. The small trading and customs outpost of Bang Kok developed in the late fifteenth century as a Chinese-dominated node in the lucrative trade network that connected the Gulf of Siam to the Indian Ocean and Southern Chinese Sea. Its position guaranteed the town commercial success and strategic importance, especially after the Burmese attacked and sacked Ayutthaya in 1767. The following year, King Taksin (r. 1767–82), a warrior who had managed to push back the Burmese offensive, relocated the capital of Siam to Thonburi, an easily defendable area near the outpost, on the western bank of the river. Fifteen years later, Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke, later known as Rama I, staged a revolt against Taksin, ordered his beheading, and established the still-reigning Chakri dynasty. A new capital was founded on the opposite bank of the river, by displacing a few miles south the Chinese traders who occupied the outpost. It was 1782, a year that was memorialized as the birth of Bangkok.

Relocating the capital across the river, however, was not enough to guarantee the legitimacy of the new dynasty. The new king needed to claim a direct connection with the previous sovereigns of Ayutthaya. With this in mind, the new capital was named Krung Rattanakosin Ayutthaya, which still remains as the name of Bangkok's historical district. The connection between the new capital and the older royal city of Ayutthaya, however, was not just a matter of toponyms. While royal historiography was set in motion to link the new monarchs with the former rulers, the new city underwent radical topographic and architectonic interventions to mimic the previous capital. Ayutthaya was on an island, located at the confluence of two rivers, from which departed a maze of canals, connecting it to its hinterland. Major engineering was needed to carve an island into the river bend where Krung Rattanakosin was to flourish. In 1783, Rama I ordered the digging of a canal by Chinese workers, whom he rewarded with access to land along the waterway and south of the newly created island, in an area that would become the economic core of the city. From this first canal more and more branches were added during the first four reigns of the Chakri dynasty (1782–1868), coextensive with the expansion of the monarchs' sphere of influence.

Once the terrain of Bangkok looked similar to that of Ayutthaya, its buildings followed suit. The spatial and symbolic layout of the former capital followed Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. Urban structure, organized to mirror their shared cosmology, revolved around a walled palace that housed the main religious sites, the royal court, as well as most of the population. Each of the main buildings was oriented according to astrological considerations, which the sovereigns of Ayutthaya had imported from Khmer Brahmins, together with royal rituals. The urban structure, cosmological tradition, and court rituals that had traveled westward from the Khmer empire now traveled downstream to Krung Rattanakosin. Along with them, bricks from Ayutthaya's most notable buildings were shipped and used in the new city. What the Burmese pillage had left standing, the Chakri dynasty disassembled and reconstructed in the new capital as a way to save money and as material evidence of Rama I's self-professed role as the restorer of the Ayutthaya Kingdom.

In the new city, as it had been in Ayutthaya, canals became the main channels for the mobility. Even if the early life of the new capital took place mostly inside the walls, its connections to the outside world were mediated by water. Commerce, ceremonies, transportation, war, political and cultural influence traveled, for most of the first five reigns of the Chakri dynasty, on water and made the city famous among European travelers as the Venice of the East. While rivers and canals guaranteed the functioning of the Siamese Kingdom, salty water carried a major challenge to its survival. In 1818, the British Crown — guided by the maritime expansion of the East India Company — acquired Singapore. By 1824, the whole of Malacca was under British control and two years after significant parts of what came to be known as Burma fell to the colonial expansion. In 1859, French forces conquered Saigon and by 1863 the Kingdom of Cambodia had become a French protectorate.

The kings of Bangkok found themselves surrounded by colonial powers that were slowly eating away the semiautonomous tributary reigns and sultanates around them. They responded by emulating colonial powers. This meant raising capital, purchasing military hardware, and constructing a transportation infrastructure necessary to establish and consolidate their control over areas and kingdoms they never previously cared to subjugate. The adoption of these colonial techniques would, inadvertently, set in motion three of the conditions of possibility for the emergence, a century after, of motorcycle taxi drivers in Bangkok. First, they would grant local officials the immunity from legal scrutiny and repercussions that became the first condition of possibility for the drivers' operations in a gray legal area. Second, they created the conditions of uneven development that fostered mass internal migration from the outer provinces to Bangkok. And third, they generated a network of roads, with a specific shape they retained from their previous lives as canals, which provided the terrain for the motorcycle taxis' diffusion in the city.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations



1 • The Unsettled Layers of Bangkok
2 • The Dangers of Mobility
3 • The Unresolved Tensions of Migration
4 • The Paradox of Freedom


5 • Fighting over the State
6 • Transforming Desires into Demands
7 • Unraveling the Thai Capital
8 • Combining Powers


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