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Motorcycles & the Art of Politics in Thailand, with Claudio Sopranzetti

February 28, 2018

Detail from book cover of The Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxis Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I am speaking with Claudio Sopranzetti. Claudio is author of a new book called Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok. He is a specialist in Thai politics and is based at the University of Oxford.

Claudio, thanks for coming to Carnegie Council.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Thanks for having me here. Pleasure to be here.

DEVIN STEWART: Your book Owners of the Map is looking at the role of the motorcycle taxi driver, which is ubiquitous probably all around the world but particularly in East Asia, specifically in Southeast Asia. If you want to get anywhere in Southeast Asia, you need to know about motorcycle taxis.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Yes, precisely.

DEVIN STEWART: Your book is looking at specifically a period between 2010 and 2015. In 2010 there was a major protest, and in 2014 we had the coup, which we still have today.

Before we get to your book, can you just give our listeners a picture of where we are today, 2018. There might be an election next year since the military takeover of the government. Give a picture real quick and the prospects for ending the coup and bringing about an actual democratic government.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Basically, as you were saying, in 2014 there was this military coup, which everybody at the beginning expected to be very short-lived and turned to be not so, which was a surprise for many people, both in Thailand and as a sense of a trajectory. You have this sense that Thailand has always been the democratic country in Southeast Asia, and now you have Thailand being in a situation that is very far away from that picture. In a way, you have seen Burma/Myanmar becoming more democratic and Thailand going in the opposite direction.

What is happening right now is that there should be—and there probably will be, I think—an election in about a year, an election, however, that I do not think will have a very significant effect on who rules the country, and we can talk about it a little bit.

But basically just quickly to outline what is happening: Two years ago they passed a new constitution, and this constitution is a very different document from anything we have seen until now. It is a document in which basically inside the empty shell of a democratic process there is an authoritarian system. So it is a constitutionally authoritarian system, which is something we have not seen, really.

I am trying to argue, in the book a little bit and more in what I am working on now, that there is a larger trend in East Asia of a certain Chinese model of authoritarianism that is not outside the rule of law, but in fact uses the rule of law to govern through other methods. I think that is what we are seeing. In practice this means that the army itself might create a party, and even if they do not win an election, they draft the constitution in a way in which they can always intervene quite heavily in politics regardless if they are in the government or not.

DEVIN STEWART: What does the public think of the military government? I know there have been some marches and protests and signs making fun of the commander-in-chief.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Right. I think that is a great question, and it is one that gets to a lot of the stuff that is in the book.

Again, we always had and we tended to have in the last decades this idea that the middle class is the core of democratic practice, and the reality of what is happening in Thailand now is that the middle class is the backbone of an authoritarian regime.

I think you can see these dynamics around the world, this kind of shift into a distrust toward democracy and democratic elections. You see it in Venezuela, you see it in Ukraine, you see it in Brazil, you see it in Thailand. In fact, you see it in this country, in a way, the sense that a certain educated middle class doesn't trust the public to vote. So what you are seeing is precisely this reconfiguration where the people we are supposed to think of as the proponents of democratic practices are actually supporting an authoritarian regime.

The public is split, I think, quite heavily on the question.

DEVIN STEWART: Why don't you think the middle classes trust the public?

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: I think there are a number of reasons. I actually think that the idea that the middle class wanted democratic practices out of a certain ideology, I don't think that ever was the case. There is actually some really good theorizing from Chinese thinkers about this. Basically their argument is saying that the middle class in the West wanted the rule of law. They did not care about democracy; meaning, if I am a shop owner, I want someone to not come tomorrow and take my property. As far as that is respected, okay.

That is how Chinese thinkers are explaining why the growth in the Chinese class is not bringing a growth in democratic practices. I think that is one aspect. It is a much longer history, I think, that we failed to understand for a long time.

DEVIN STEWART: But Italy has been around for a long time. You, nationally, as a person from Italy, have had a lot to look at. You are not a newbie to governance. But you think the Chinese theorists have a point.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: I think they have a point. You see in Italy now, there is a very strong sense among a traditionally leftist middle class that elections are a bad idea, and so I think that connects to what you were asking before to the second point I was making, which is the fact that there is a very long existing fear of this dictatorship of the majority: What happens when the majority makes choices you do not agree with?

That is the very core of the democratic question, I think: What happens when your side does not win? I think that is what is happening, and that is what we are seeing developing there.

DEVIN STEWART: Wow. Do you want to take any bets on which side is going to win?

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Frankly, the sad part of that is that it might be irrelevant in the short run who wins this election, which makes it scarier. Again, it looks like what has been happening in Italy in the last years as well.

DEVIN STEWART: Back to the Thai election next year. You said earlier that it might not make a big difference. Is that because of the new constitution?

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Yes. The way the constitution is written basically the army can intervene, regardless of who is in the government, in matters of national security. National security is defined in a way that includes policies and economic policies. So say your government wants to redistribute wealth or pass national health insurance, which was a big deal many years ago before the protests, they can intervene and say this is a challenge to national security.

So you have a case in which any kind of redistributive politics or politics that goes to people can trigger an intervention from an outside power, (A). (B), basically 50 percent of the Senate will not be elected, which means that in order to become prime minister you have to win the vote by 70 percent, which probably no one will be able to do. At that point, again they introduce the prime minister that they want. There are all sorts of procedures in place to prevent a vote from having a real effect.

DEVIN STEWART: Interesting. Let's go back to your book, which is looking at the motorcycles, the people on the motorcycles, the taxi drivers. It looks like you're really specifically looking at Bangkok during 2010. Let's go back in time to 2010, when we are still a little bit more optimistic about the future of Thai democracy, maybe; some people were not.

Why did you look at motorcycle drivers, and what kind of role did they play in—can I call it "people power"? What would you call this movement?

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: It was called the "Red Shirts," that one specifically, but yes, I guess it is a type of people-power movement.

The coming to [inaudible] and trying to work on motorcycle taxis was kind of fortuitous in a way, and it connected to what you were saying in the beginning, like you cannot miss them, they are in front of you everywhere.

I did not really realize at the beginning how big their role in politics was. So at the beginning it was a project about trying to understand how a city works, and how does a city of 15 million people, without really functioning state-run infrastructure, operate.

DEVIN STEWART: Right.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Very quickly I realized that the people who were moving and allowing goods and commodities and people to circulate through this massive city, creating markets, connecting, paying bills, doing all sorts of stuff besides transportation, in certain environments and in certain situations could also shut the city down, and that is exactly what they did in 2010.

DEVIN STEWART: Explain how that happens, through blockades and so forth.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: It happens through blockade, it happened from refusal to your service. They did for about a month these caravans that they ran around the city, so it was motorcycles, cars, and all sorts of other trucks. They were basically slowing traffic down so much. They could not be charged with blocking traffic, but they could slow the city and basically make it impossible to go around.

DEVIN STEWART: What was their grievance? What did they want?

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: The grievance was very similar to what we were discussing before. It was really ultimately about two things, I think: democratic representation.

So the sense is Thailand is a very internally divided country. You have Bangkok, which is a global city. You can have a meal that is as expensive as the most expensive place in New York; you can live in a skyscraper and have this amazing global life. The rest of the country is completely underdeveloped as an effect of Bangkok basically sucking resources out. And most of the drivers are from the rest of the country.

So there is this sense that you come to the city, you start navigating and moving through the city, you get a sense of what you are missing. It was precisely on this idea of: "We want democratic elections; we are the majority; we keep electing government; you keep taking it down with coups or other means, so we want to have our voice listened to" on one side, and the other one was: "We want goods. We want to be part of this capitalist bonanza around us." I think it was precisely the relationship between those unfulfilled desires for stuff and how they transform into political grievances which is basically what I am trying to analyze in the book.

DEVIN STEWART: It sounds like a microcosm of the grievances you hear about all around the world, the connected provinces seeing the center and then saying, "I want some of that," and then getting really frustrated that they cannot get any of that, whatever that is, property, money, or goods. This seems like a global—

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: No, absolutely. And that was precisely the point of saying, "Let's take something really tiny and really everyday life and try"—

DEVIN STEWART: Let's get really micro with these guys. Tell me about some of these figures you met. They must have been quite characters.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Yes, they are. They definitely are. Precisely.

Let me give you an example of how these desires are built in their everyday life and what that looks like in practice.

DEVIN STEWART: Yes, because most people who visit these countries do not have a chance to just hang out with these guys, so this is great.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: One of the fortunate things was really spending a long time there, so going back to the villages with them and stuff like that.

Let me start from a story actually of going back to the village. I was on a train heading back to a province next door, Loei, with this one guy who was going back and seeing his kids who live there. He was getting drunk on the train, we were getting drunk, and chatting about politics, about this and that. And then he opened his bag to grab another bottle of whiskey, and there was a package of KFC. KFC is very expensive in Thailand.

DEVIN STEWART: Fried chicken was in his bag.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken. It is very expensive in Thailand.

DEVIN STEWART: Was it hot still?

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: No, no. It was there since we left basically. It was like seven hours in.

So I asked him, "Why do you have Kentucky Fried Chicken?" which is like 10 times as expensive as normal fried chicken in Thailand. His point is: "This is what my kids want from the city."

It was precisely that moment when you understand the process through which you have kids sitting in a village in front of the TV watching advertising being produced in Bangkok and starting to dream precisely of this life, starting to desire this kind of life that feels very close by but very far away at the same time. And having this poor man bringing this very horrible, overcooked, and waiting-for-12-hours chicken up there, but these are the kind of microdynamics that matter in a way. They seem irrelevant, but day after day of having that dream and constantly having unfulfilled results out of it is precisely what builds the grievances.

Another example that is in there as well is about iPhones. Some of these guys, when the iPhone 4 came out in Thailand, were basically buying and reselling iPhones. Obviously, they cost a month and a half of their stipend, but they got to play with it. So suddenly they realize, Oh, whoa, we are excluded from this giant Internet sphere, all the opportunity that it creates, learning English

DEVIN STEWART: It is like a drug dealer becoming a drug addict.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Precisely. These kinds of dynamics, I think, often are unnoticed because of their micro lens, but they really do matter.

There is this whole Marxist theory about capital and labor, but the reality of the matter is that most people fight to give their kids opportunities. I do not think that is an unreasonable political motive.

DEVIN STEWART: Sure. Of course.

What types of special knowledge do the motorcycle drivers have about the city?

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: A lot, as you can guess.

DEVIN STEWART: One of the stories I remember was of them showing up at parties late at night to—

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Yes, to bring alcohol and ice.

There are two sides: one is the knowledge of every cab driver before the app transformation had this intuitive knowledge of the city and this map that they had in their heads, hence the title Owners of the Map.

But I think it is more than that. These people are sitting at street corners, so they have all this other knowledge which is about information, basically. It is not by chance that at the end of the book I talk about how since 2014 the military is trying to use them as an intelligence agency. Because obviously, they see every corner. They know exactly—like I will go out from my house, and I will pass them and say, "Oh, yesterday so-and-so came to your house, and you stayed until this time, and she stayed until that time."

DEVIN STEWART: How does that work? Is it like the local police?

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Basically, they sit at street corners. So after a while they have a sense and then—

DEVIN STEWART: These guys are standing around on the street corners, but who approaches them?

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: The police started some years ago to use them for fire prevention, micro-crime, and stuff like that. Then in the South of Thailand where there is an ongoing insurgency, the military started to recruit them about five or six years ago, and then since the coup they really expanded that, so they have this policy called ta sabpard, which means "pineapple eye." You know, the pineapple has all these dots. The poster of the policy is a pineapple with camera lenses where the dots are.

DEVIN STEWART: Like a Panopticon.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: It is like a tropical Panopticon.

DEVIN STEWART: Oh my god.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: So their whole idea is to transform them into these eyes that are everywhere in the city.

DEVIN STEWART: Is that an effective program?

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Some people have joined. You have this—

DEVIN STEWART: Do they pay them?

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Yes.

DEVIN STEWART: Do they pay them well?

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: They pay them decently. They do not pay very well. But also, it is this kind of thing where if you are a motorcycle taxi driver you are bound to break laws constantly, like driving against the law of traffic, crossing where you are not supposed to, not bringing your helmet. So there is this kind of relationship where "I don't bother you, and you give me a hand when I need it," basically.

DEVIN STEWART: How does the average Thai see these guys in their daily lives? What is their perception? Also, you mentioned something about urban myths regarding these guys.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: I think the general perception is not very positive of the motorcycle taxi in abstract. You have all these stories about them being drug dealers and touching women and so on, which makes sense. They are liminal figures, they come from the countryside. Also they are people who have very uncommon physical contact with strangers, something that in Thailand does not really happen very much, so they do walk a very sensitive line. I am sure there are people who are involved in drug dealing and things like that.

But what was fascinating to me is that this kind of negative view really changes as soon as you start talking about the drivers everybody uses. If you go to Bangkok, everybody has on their phone the number of one specific driver that they use for everything—as you were saying, for deliveries, to pay the bills, to pick up your kids.

So if you go in a bank office, 70 percent of the people sitting there are motorcycle taxi. So people give the money and say, "Okay, go do this deposit, go cash this check, go pay this bill." You have this actually very close relationship based on trust with some of them.

There is a story that I tell in the book about this one driver that was used as basically like a moving cash machine for this very shady businessman. Basically the guy was giving him cash to deliver around the city, arriving to the point of giving him about 2 million baht, which is about $50,000, which is more than this guy will see in his entire life. So there is a lot of that dynamic going on of transaction and things being moved through them.

DEVIN STEWART: You also mention urban myths about these guys. What are some of the urban myths?

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: If you look at literature and TV shows and movies, they often—like for instance, there is this very famous movie when one of the characters is this motorcycle taxi driver who is basically dead but is still driving around.

DEVIN STEWART: He is a ghost?

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: It is not really a ghost, it is kind of like a zombie, like a driving zombie.

You have all these myths about accidents and amulets and their relationship with cults, because obviously it is a dangerous occupation. So there are all these myths about their role and the relationship they have with black magic and protective tattoos and the way in which they have accidents but they never die, so there is a whole kind of sub-world of this stuff that happens.

DEVIN STEWART: Wow.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: I think it is related to something we were discussing before the interview outside, it is this myth of the rider, of the free rider, of this young, able, male body who rides.

DEVIN STEWART: In America we love Easy Rider.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Exactly.

DEVIN STEWART: You also just reminded me of my friend's book Ghosts of the Tsunami, which is a fantastic book.

But let's get to that myth and the special role of the motorcycle in society and the public imagination. When I was looking at your book and reading some of it before we talked, I thought of a few other works of art: Speed Tribes, about Japan; you have The Motorcycle Diaries, about Che Guevara; and you have Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, in which there is a motorcycle role in documenting the political change in Burma; and of course, Easy Rider is the American countercultural icon.

What do you suppose it is about the motorcycle that is so special?

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: I think there is a number of things. First of all, it is a kind of an historical construction. If you look at early advertising of motorcycles, once motorcycles became something that people could get—so you have an older culture of motorcycles, which was for very wealthy people.

Then from the 1960s, you have this new middle class that has some money to spend, and motorcycles become one of the big goods. You see it in Italy, you see it in Europe, you see it to a certain degree here in the United States, and you see it later on obviously in Asia, like Vietnam, Thailand, this kind of spread of motorcycles.

DEVIN STEWART: Of freedom.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: If you look at the moment, it is always framed as freedom, and it is obviously the experiential freedom of riding, which has obviously a body relation to it.

DEVIN STEWART: It is exciting.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: It is exciting, it is risky, and so on.

But I think it is also connected with the new freedom that a certain class of males, specifically, get involved in through this kind of historical moment of having some more money to spend, having cash at disposal for something else that is not necessary. I think there is that dynamic at play definitely of class and experience.

But I think there is also something else which connects to politics, especially in recent years, which is the fact that I think a lot of politics nowadays is happening around the question of circulations rather than production. We are used to thinking about politics as something that happens on factory floors, and if you look at in factory floors, that is not happening anymore. But logistics, distribution—

DEVIN STEWART: Amazon.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: —Amazon.

DEVIN STEWART: Amazon is the symbol.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Anonymous Internet circulation. I think what I am trying to say at the end of the book is precisely to say, "Listen, there is a shift happening where politics is not anymore where stuff is produced, but it is moving where stuff is circulating, and precisely through blockages." The way in which the structure of the economy nowadays is built is that circulation becomes really central.

I think it is not by chance that Occupy started in the streets. There is a sense that these kinds of nodes that manage that circulation become more relevant. Think about protests around Uber, think about the Somali pirates blocking the circulation of oil in the Horn of Africa. There is something, I think, about the shift that is happening that this book is trying to look at.

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting, Claudio.

Before we go, you are working on a graphic novel called Awakened. Do you want to give us a quick sense of what that is all about?

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Sure. I guess the idea behind it was basically saying, "Okay, I write an academic book that not many people will end up reading. Let's try to take these stories precisely and transform it in to something else," which I do not think necessarily needs to be simplistic, but it can be more narrative. I am working with a couple of artists, one Thai and one Italian, and we are putting together something along that line.

DEVIN STEWART: Claudio Sopranzetti, so good to see you.

CLAUDIO SOPRANZETTI: Thanks for having me.

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