BANGKOK: The gangs controlling Bangkok's motorbike taxis, the fastest and probably most dangerous way to get around the crowded city, have been declared public enemy one by campaigning premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin, a populist prime minister whose recent bloody crackdown on drug dealers was criticised abroad but won praise at home, has now set his sights on the motorcycle mafia which extorts millions of dollars from the bike riders.
Motorbike taxis are hugely popular with Bangkok residents, and can command even higher fares than air-conditioned taxis which charge a flag fall of 35 baht (RM3.15).
Hundreds of thousands of people use them every day, jumping on the back of machines ranging from 125cc putt-putts to high-powered racing models, which expertly, if sometimes perilously, wend their way through choked traffic.
But Thailand's 200,000 motorbike taxi riders have revealed recently that accidents and choking pollution are not the only hazards they face.
They say they are living in a climate of fear and repression, forced to hand over a quarter of their monthly wage to mafia bosses and police in exchange for the right to ply their trade.
Riders at one of Bangkok's 1,800 motorbike taxi stands said that they worked 12-hour shifts for about 200 baht (RM19) a day, but were forced to pay the police 1,000 baht (RM95) a month in protection money.
“If we don't pay we can't stay here,” said one rider, who did not want to be named.
“The traffic police will arrest us, because parking on the pavement is illegal,” he said, explaining that the money is paid to a middleman who then takes it to the police.
Calls for regulation have been growing, with 800 riders publicly protesting police corruption last month.
But an order for all motorbike taxi drivers to register with their local council has reportedly sparked violent reprisals from gangsters anxious not to lose their lucrative franchises.
Some riders have been beaten up after registering, and some council offices have refused to let anyone sign up, according to local media reports.
One 23-year-old rider claimed he was attacked by police after quarrelling with a mafia boss over his registration.
After meeting with top police officials last week to discuss the registration scheme, Thaksin expressed confidence that his government would eliminate the “dark influences” who gain from the standover tactics.
“We are still in the process of re-organising and we should give more time to the officials, but I think it will take longer than the crackdown on drugs which will be completely wiped out before Dec 2,” he said.
It's no wonder that corrupt police and low-level politicians want to keep a tight grip on the trade when they can siphon off a chunk of annual revenue estimated in a recent study to be worth 20bil baht (RM18.2bil).
“The extortion money is worth a staggering five billion baht (RM456mil) a year, or a quarter of the money flowing into this business,” said the Kasikorn Research Centre study. – AFP
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