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When carabaos move to the city

As a schoolboy in 1990s Iriga, a small city in the Bicol region of the Philippines, I would sometimes walk past a field of water hyacinths and reeds. Normally, I would ride a tricycle (a motorbike with an attached sidecar) to and from my grandparents’ house and the Catholic school that I attended. However, I resorted to walking whenever my monthly allowance was on the verge of running out. During those occasions, I would usually notice the carabaos (water buffaloes) eating grass or submerged in the field’s pools of mud; I suspect my attention was partly drawn by the sight and overpowering scent of their dung. It’s also true that, although where I grew up was by no means highly urbanised, carabaos did not play a significant role in my everyday life. No wonder that during a visit to the family of a maternal uncle, who lived in an upland village, I was not only in awe of, but also scared for, my cousins who rode the back of their carabao with confidence and ease. Growing up in the city centre and living a lifestyle typical of Filipino provincial middle classes—thanks to my mother, who had been working in Manila as a civil servant—meant that I had attenuated ties to the world of agriculture even if my grandparents who raised me in my mother’s absence were coconut and abaca farmers during their younger years. That link was diminished further in 2001 when I myself moved to Manila to attend a Jesuit university that catered mainly to the country’s elite. Seventeen years and a move to Scotland later, walking past carabaos has become rather removed from my reality.

Reading Claudio Sopranzetti’s Owners of the Map, however, made me recall those moments, but also what is at stake when someone from the provinces moves to the national capital. An account of Bangkok’s conspicuous (but also, as he points out, often taken for granted) motorcycle taxi drivers, Sopranzetti’s book speaks to, and brings together, anthropological conversations on mobilities and migration, infrastructures, social movements, capitalism, and the state. It is a testament to how mobilities have become central to the contemporary global economy and pose challenges to dominant relations of power. Rooted in the everyday lives of drivers, it illuminates how they navigate what is at once an urban space, a palimpsest of historical events, and an arena of contending political projects. Based on long-term fieldwork conducted between 2008 and 2014, it examines how a seemingly marginal group of men came to occupy a central role in a populist effort to centralise state power; the subsequent resistance from urban political forces; the rise of the Red Shirts movement; and the eventual imposition of military rule.

Despite the importance of motorcycle taxi drivers to Bangkok’s economy and everyday life, they were taken for granted, and indeed looked down upon, by the city’s educated middle and upper-classes. Depictions of the drivers in public discourses built on stereotypes of people from outside Bangkok as ignorant, not-yet developed country bumpkins whose bodies bear the marks of manual labour, most prominently dark skin tones. People from the countryside were thus likened by their metropolitan cousins to water buffaloes. Early on in the book, Sopranzentti quotes one of the city’s residents who was rather sceptical upon hearing about his ethnographic project:

“Motorcycle taxi driver? This is what my son will become, if he doesn’t work hard,” a young mother who worked in a small office in central Bangkok told me half-joking and half-concerned as we chatted at a subway stop. When she was young, tending water buffaloes was the bogeyman fate reserved for disobedient and lazy youngsters. Now that the country is urbanized and buffaloes sparse, becoming a motorcycle taxi driver has taken its place as the epitome of the undesirable job for the urban middle classes. “Why would you want to spend years talking to them?” she continued, referring to the drivers. “You study culture, you should focus on Buddhism.”

The motorcycle taxi drivers that figure in Owners of the Map are migrants, predominantly from the north-eastern part of Thailand. As Sopranzetti elaborates, how and why these migrants took up motorcycle taxi driving in Bangkok is the result of complex, overlapping histories. In their everyday lives, drivers encountered these histories not discretely or sequentially, but as co-present phantoms. Among these is the decades-long extraction of resources in the form of taxes and people from the countryside to Bangkok. This bias in favour of the capital was itself enabled by the development of the state’s administrative apparatus and the railways that connected the capital to the rest of the country. It was likewise entangled with nationalist sentiments and anti-Chinese immigrant policies. Similarly important is the development of Bangkok’s geography from one centred on waterways to one centred on roads, a process that was spurred by aspirations to modernity on the part of Thailand’s political elites. Yet, this process did not occur free of contradictions, opposition, or deficiencies. It resulted in a mesh of roads that seemingly defies logic or where critical interconnections are lacking, hence the traffic jams with which Bangkok is often associated.

The state’s economic policy shifted too. From the 1950s to the early 1990s, industrial development was emphasised, including the production of motorcycles and other automobiles. This policy stimulated migration from the countryside to Bangkok. Approaching the mid-1990s, following the neoliberal orthodoxy promoted by the World Bank and the IMF, policies promoting the deregulation of capital and the growth of the service industries (including less secure working conditions) were adopted by the government. This shift eventuated in the 1997 financial crisis, which afflicted Southeast Asia’s economic tigers, the aftermath of which included the loss of jobs in manufacturing. The post-crisis period also saw the coming into power of Thaksin Shinawatra, a successful businessman and politician from northern Thailand who ran on a populist but broadly pro-market platform.

By the time Sopranzetti conducted his fieldwork, motorcycle taxi drivers had become a ubiquitous presence in Bangkok. They performed what previous anthropologists have called phatic labour. Every day, they would ferry the city’s numerous inhabitants to and from their places of work, schooling, and residence, allowing them to skirt the city’s notorious traffic jams. They also transported various goods and documents, including the daily newspapers, which, as Benedict Anderson famously suggested almost four decades ago, are central to the imagination of nationhood. Thus, drivers were fundamental to how Bangkok worked: they allowed urbanites to gain a sense of Bangkok as an entity that they can and do navigate. At the same time, particularly whenever they were waiting for busy hours, these drivers enabled a sense of neighbourhood to develop in the city’s various parts. They were reliable sources of information and could be called on to help residents, for example. Being attuned to the neighbourhood was a means for these men to build futures for themselves and their kin—e.g. a driver securing a scholarship for a daughter from a local resident for whom he has handled illicit transactions in the past—although this was by no means successful all the time.

Indeed, becoming a motorcycle taxi driver entailed difficulties: routes had to be mastered, bodies trained, the rhythms of the city’s residents taken to heart, and corrupt policemen and state officials evaded, for instance. Not surprisingly, some resorted to using amulets meant to ward off misfortune. There was too, as I’ve pointed out, the degradation associated with being a migrant and lowly driver. Yet, drivers persisted because of a desire to partake in modernity, particularly in the consumption of brands and commodities. This desire is vividly demonstrated by the case of Adun, one of the men who feature in the book, and whose daughters wanted KFC and pizza every time their father came home from Bangkok. Likewise, in a manner that resonates with the experiences of many other contemporary migrants, motorcycle taxi drivers sought to build concrete houses that embody the very modernity they aspired for, recasting traditional life and architecture as deficient. Sopranzetti in fact underscores how, enabled by the rise of marketing, global capitalism has shifted to the extent that people’s aspirations, self-regard, and identity are now defined by consumption rather than their role in relations of production.

I must confess that I’ve only been to Bangkok once, during a company trip in 2009. At that time, unsure if I ought to pursue an academic life, I was working for a consumer research agency in Manila that had just been acquired by a UK-based global marketing conglomerate. Many of my colleagues saw the trip as an opportunity to do some shopping, including in the Central World complex that is at the heart of Bangkok’s consumption culture, and which would figure prominently in the Red Shirts’ protests. Working in the consumer research industry, it became clear to me that there are many kinds of consumers and that many marketing efforts fail or have limited efficacy. From this perspective, I appreciate Sopranzetti’s point that motorcycle taxi drivers and migrants more generally have different ways of relating to Bangkok and the countryside. While some sought to reconcile working in the capital with continued participation in, and eventual return to, village life, others sought to severe connections. There were also those who took pride in being from the provinces, reversing the moral hierarchy between Bangkok and its hinterlands. This pride is suggested by the immense popularity of the band Carabao, whose name is a reference to the way people in Bangkok refer to those from the provinces, and which, intriguingly enough, was chosen by band members who had studied in Manila and presumably learnt the word during their time there.


If the past featured in the lives of Bangkok’s motorcycle taxi drivers as overlapping layers, the present and the future were akin to images produced by a kaleidoscope: composed of various, even clashing, elements that together create scenes that are ever changing and only temporarily stabilised. The picture that emerges here vividly is that of politics as marked by plurality, open-endedness, and contingency.

When Shinawatra became Prime Minister in 2001, he sought to implement policies that, on the one hand, were in favour of entrepreneurialism and flexible labour, but expanded welfare provisions and promoted economic nationalism on the other. Such policies were in fact against the neoliberal prescriptions of the IMF that Shinawatra’s predecessor and electoral opponent favoured. While he came from a politically-connected middle class family, he accentuated his provincial background and presented himself as having come from the lower classes. For motorcycle taxi drivers and other migrants from the countryside, Shinawatra’s victory meant that, for the first time in a long while, the possibility of recognition from political and economic elites, and of participation in the modern life of the nation felt within reach.

As part of the drive to promote entrepreneurialism, and influenced by the economist Hernando de Soto, Shinawatra’s government sought to incorporate within the formal economy those who were at its fringes. Motorcycle taxi drivers, due to their ubiquity, became pivotal to this exercise. Drivers were to be registered, given uniforms, allowed access to the financial market, and were to be serviced by state functionaries. This move was embraced enthusiastically by drivers who saw it as an opportunity to be recognised by a state that had long ignored them, although they were certainly not blind to the contradictions generated by the policy or the government’s inadequacies. In fact, in 2003, frustrated by the gap between the promises made by Thaksin and realities on the ground, drivers organised a series of protests that compelled the government to implement their promises. Although the formalisation of motorcycle taxi driving was meant to encourage competition, it in fact resulted in collective mobilisation. The carabaos were awake and ready to throw their riders off their backs.

It was not just the drivers with which Shinawatra had to contend. Essentially, he was an outsider to Bangkok’s political scene, yet had authoritarian aspirations. He had to wrestle control over the Thai state’s various functions and powers, especially its finances. Sopranzetti foregrounds how the idea of the state as a monolithic structure and whose powers are coherent is both imaginary and with material consequences. He deploys the literary image of the conch:

In this sense, the state operated for people of influence and drivers alike as the conch in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies—an empty shell that gains power from collective acceptance of its role, allowing whichever faction holds it to act as if it has obtained complete and unified control. Thaksin was now determined to become its holder, claiming the strength of electoral support to enforce his own influence over state forces.

The urban-based political classes mobilized against Shinawatra, drawing upon royalist and Buddhist discourses to portray their enemy as a danger to the Thai nation. Although Thaksin’s party won another election in 2006, mounting pressure compelled him to take a leave of absence and his electoral victory was nullified by the judiciary. In September of that year, before yet another election, the military staged a take-over, prompting Thaksin’s supporters—the Red Shirts—to stage protests in the capital.

The motorcycle taxi drivers drew upon their intimate knowledge of Bangkok’s geography to ferry protesters, information, and supplies between sites. They were central to how the Red Shirts movement evaded military power. Their action led to the paralysis of Bangkok, particularly the occupation of spaces associated with the urban middle and upper classes, such as the Central World complex mentioned above. Here we see an inversion: if the motorcycle taxi drivers’ everyday mobility allowed the city to work, this same mobility brought the city to its knees. Likewise, if prior to the protests, drivers could ferry the city’s residents to its various middle-class enclaves, but were otherwise excluded from them, they appropriated them during the protests. Villages and provinces were transplanted into Bangkok, as kin, neighbours, and town- and province-mates reunited and shared spaces.

If the state is not a monolithic entity, the same can be said of the Red Shirts movement. Sopranzetti elaborates how those who went to the protests had different motivations. While some were staunch defenders of Thaksin and his policies, others were there simply because of the pull of relatives, friends, and other familiar faces, for example. Similarly, he underscores how different and competing objectives co-existed, as did models of power. As his riveting chapters vividly illustrate, what goes hand in hand with plurality is open-endedness: while plans, strategies, and tactics were important, luck, coincidences, and failures also shaped the course and outcome of the protests. Power, for elites and non-elites alike, is ultimately fragile.

In the end, the Red Shirts were outmanoeuvred by the military. One of the haunting moments recounted by Sopranzetti was how protesters, in the face of impending defeat, wreaked havoc on the malls they had been occupying. The irony was that some of them thought that the military would not dare harm them given the material and symbolic importance of the malls and the commodities within them. In the aftermath of the defeat of Thaksin and his supporters, the spell cast by the monarchy on the Thai population was momentarily broken. The military and allied forces sought to regain control of Bangkok and Thai politics, including by securing the cooperation of leaders of the city’s motorcycle taxi drivers leading to the disaffection of some members. There is, of course, a bigger story. As observers of Thailand would know, the period after Thaksin’s ouster from office until the present has been rather volatile, with governments (including that of Thaksin’s sister) succeeding one another, ending with another military coup in 2014.

Readers looking for a decisive conclusion may be disappointed, as Owners of the Map ends with the sense that things are still unfolding and there is no way of determining what the future brings. At the same time, Sopranzetti distils from the experiences of his interlocutors some ideas that may be instructive for contemporary struggles. He underscores that the motorcycle taxi drivers of Bangkok illustrate how mobility can be a site of political mobilisation in the contemporary context of global capitalism, but also the resurgence of right-wing politics. Thus, while attending to complexities and contingencies may be overwhelming for others, it has the potential to transform relations of power:

Their [the motorcycle taxi drivers’] political mobilization revealed mobility both as a characteristic of contemporary capitalism and as one of its fragile spots, always prone to disruption by the people who sustain channels of economic, social, and conceptual exchange yet remain excluded from the benefits of this work.


There is thus much to be admired in this book. Yet, as Sopranzetti admits with humility, Owners of the Map has multiple blind spots. To begin with, it takes a masculine perspective, as it is largely based on the ethnographer’s relationship and interactions with male drivers, especially riding with and moving alongside them in Bangkok. Hence, although the book discusses episodes when the drivers visited their families in the countryside, much of it pertains to events in the capital. I wonder what sort of picture could have emerged had the ethnographer spent more time in the drivers’ villages of origin. That is, how might migration and other mobilities be examined without taking movement—and destination—as the immediate point of departure?

The account presented in the book highlights the importance of relationships in at least two contexts: the generation and sustenance of aspirations and mobilities (for instance, continuing to work in Bangkok despite challenging work conditions in order to provide for children and other kin); and during the Red Shirts’ protests, when, as pointed out, drivers and other migrants were mobilised by virtue of friends, kin, and people from their localities. The significance of relationships for politics and mobilities alike, however, could have been pursued further. This was a missed opportunity to link to contemporary efforts in anthropology to revisit the generativity of kinship and to disrupt the analytical separation of the intimate from the political or the economic. Likewise, to the extent that relationships figure in the book, these are in the context of heterosexuality, hence raising questions such as: is there a singular model of masculinity among migrant motorcycle taxi drivers? How might heterosexual masculinity relate to non-heterosexual masculinities and queer sexualities?

Finally, the mobilities we encounter in the book are from the countryside to Bangkok and within the Thai capital. How might these mobilities relate to movements to other parts of Thailand? Or perhaps to other parts of Southeast Asia and beyond? What comparisons might be made with the experiences of transnational migrants, including those coming from other parts of the region, and their entanglements with commodities and capitalism and regimes of power?

These questions notwithstanding, Owners of the Map is a truly fascinating book and it deserves to be widely read by anthropologists working not only on Southeast Asia, but also on contemporary political economic transformations more broadly.

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