Sun, Jun 23, 2019 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Bangkok’s motorbike taxis locked in deadly turf war

The Guardian

Motorcycle taxi drivers wait for passengers at a pickup spot in Bangkok on May 1.

Photo:AFP

On Thursday morning on Soi Udomsuk, a market-flanked road in east-central Bangkok, nine police officers on plastic chairs were keeping watch.

The officers, their peaked brown hats neatly lined up on trestle tables, were on the lookout for any signs of trouble between rival motorbike taxi gangs after carnage erupted in the pocket of the city on Saturday last week, when a brutal fight broke out between two groups of drivers.

Dozens of drivers bludgeoned each other with knives and batons. Handguns were fired and two men — 20-year-old delivery bike driver Weerawat Phuengkhut and 33-year-old motorbike taxi driver Watcharin Ngamchalao — were shot dead.

Police veterans said it was the bloodiest motorbike taxi driver battle they have seen in the capital.

They also acknowledged that, with the arrival of ride-hailing apps escalating Bangkok’s taxi turf wars, reports of violence among drivers have surged.

The fight took place between two groups registered with Bangkok’s Department of Land Transport (DLT).

According to one witness, the violence broke out because the gangs occupied customer pickup points that were too close for comfort.

“They had problems for a while ... then it exploded,” said Boonmee Chaleamboon, 49, a moto taxi driver who saw the battle. “I thought it was a normal fight. Then I heard gunshots.”

Chaleamboon, who earns about 600 baht (US19.53) a day, has become used to seeing “normal fights” during his 20 years as a driver.

Many of the 8.3 million people living in Bangkok rely on motorbike taxis to zip them between gridlocked vehicles and competition for riders often gets heated.

As of last month there were 104,134 recognized motorcycle taxis in the city, working from nearly 6,000 official pickup spots.

However, the competition — and violence — between moto taxi drivers has increased since October 2017, when the Uber-like ride-hailing app Grab launched in Thailand.

Grab fares undercut local operators, with short rides for as little as 40 baht: sometimes half that of street-hailed bikes.

Other ride-hail apps, including Indonesia’s Get, have launched in Thailand, but Grab, founded in Malaysia in 2012, has become the most popular.

There are two moto taxi factions facing off in Bangkok. Many DLT-registered drivers resent Grab drivers undercutting them and technically operating illegally as “private” vehicles.

While Grab drivers were not involved in the fight on Saturday last week, stories of attacks against them have been appearing regularly in Thai news and social media.

In March, a Grab driver suffered an enormous shoulder gash during a tussle over territory. This month, another was knifed in the face.

“Sometimes attacks don’t make the news,” Grab driver Pornchai Chatchawalamonkul said.

He was talking to reporters in a grimy cafe that has become a hangout spot for between-rides drivers.

Chatchawalamonkul, 42, runs a Facebook group where drivers share details of attacks and tips about how to avoid becoming victims, such as using specific side roads.

Scrolling through his smartphone, he points out lists of “red zones” where violent non-app drivers were known to prowl.

Earlier that morning, he helped a Grab driver during an altercation with another driver who was trying to steal his customer, he said.

They did this by literally grabbing the bemused passenger from the back of the Grab driver’s moped.

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