Bangkok, Thailand – Bangkok’s motorcycle-taxi drivers have long helped residents get to their appointments on time despite the Thai capital’s notorious traffic jams. But the growth of ride-hailing apps and an increase in the number of unregistered drivers in Thailand is putting the industry under immense pressure. And this has lead to big fights.
Noom, a motorcycle-taxi driver in his 50s, who preferred not to share his real name, said the competition for customers in Udom Suk, the eastern central area where he has worked for the past 20 years, has made the situation increasingly tense.
“It was just a matter of time before it turned violent,” he said, sheltering from the rain beneath an umbrella at a roadside noodle stall.
“Over the last two years, everything was mostly verbal, but it started to get worse. We all knew it was going to happen. It really was a ticking time bomb,” Noom told Al Jazeera.
Bangkok has an estimated 200,000 motorcycle-taxi drivers, or as locals call them, “win motosai”. Most are registered with the authorities, but an increasing number are not. Three weeks ago, in the middle of the morning, two teams of drivers near Noom’s station clashed violently.
The fight started small, but soon escalated into a brawl as men armed with swords, hammers, machetes, and even handguns took to the streets. In the end, dozens were hospitalised and two men died.
Noom said ride-sharing apps such as Grab have increased the competition over territory. Residents also fear that criminal gangs are getting involved.
“The introduction of ride-sharing apps has further destabilised an already fragile equilibrium in the street economies of Bangkok,” said Claudio Sopranzetti, an Oxford researcher and author of Owners of the Map, a book focussing on the political and cultural importance of Bangkok’s drivers.
“Since the 2014 coup, motorcycle-taxi drivers had experienced a resurgence of illegal drivers and corrupt officers who meddle in their job demanding racket money. This has created two effects. The first, it stirred already existing tensions, and secondly, it fostered the creation of illegal driver groups – such as the ones that recently fought each other.”
Motorcycle-taxi drivers make on average around 800 baht ($26) a day, but many drivers say it’s becoming harder for them with the added competition.
In the case of the Udom Suk fight, one of the groups was allegedly operating illegally and had started touting aggressively.
Noom and other moto-taxi drivers had been to the police to complain about the unlicensed group. But the police only took action after the clash.
The licensed group is still in business but declined multiple interview requests from Al Jazeera.
Siam Sungsunchart, 35, another registered ‘win’ manager who heads a group of drivers in Bangkok’s central Asok district said all his men were registered with the capital’s Department of Land Transport.
The department told Al Jazeera that all drivers must have registered yellow licence plates, hold public transport licences and complete an official inspection before they can start a moto-taxi station.
They said that because Grab was considered a private transportation company, they had little legal oversight, but said that such startups were against the city’s bylaws.
Despite Sungsunchart saying that many drivers weren’t registered, he feared that in some parts of the city, mafioso families may have returned to manage these stations.
“There used to be families that controlled particular roads for generations,” Sungsunchart said.
According to many drivers, a number of mafioso families controlled much of Bangkok’s moto-taxi businesses in the mid-2000s. But the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister who now lives in exile after being removed in a military coup, started a campaign to rid the city of organised crime.
“Many years ago, we would have to pay a ‘rental price’ to the local mafia,” said Sungsunchart.
“They would literally just come and collect cash from each of us. But then Thaksin got rid of them and now you have to register with local authorities.”
It’s impossible to verify whether these mafia gangs were operating in certain parts of the city, but after speaking to about a dozen other motorcycle taxi drivers in Bangkok, Al Jazeera found that the majority believe it likely.
Back at Udom Suk, Noom said a local family used to control his kiosk, but he said they had control over one of the two groups that clashed on the streets last month.
“The father started the business and now he has retired and passed it on to his son,” Noom said about the former owner of his station. “Everybody still knows this family, both the father and his son are powerful and everyone in the area still respect them. Back in the day, wearing a vest from this family was like wearing a protective halo. Because when we would wear them, we were also respected.”
But now, Noom says, times have changed. He’s not interested in getting involved with groups that could give him any trouble. He tries to avoid conflict whenever possible.
“Now we look after ourselves,” he said. “If someone from our win misbehaves, we have a peaceful sit-down with them. We are just trying to make a living without interfering with anyone. Violence is not really our thing.”