Kasem Pooksuwan heard a loud noise and looked up to see a plume of smoke. It must be an electrical fire, he thought. But he had little time to think, because a customer wearing a bright yellow shirt had arrived at his motorcycle taxi stand and needed a ride.
When Mr. Kasem returned he was told a bomb had detonated just down the road in Bangkok’s central shopping district, killing 20 people, many of them tourists, and injuring more than 100. But it wasn't until the next day that Kasem realized the passenger in the yellow shirt was a wanted man. Police suspected he had left explosives in a backpack at a popular Hindu site known as the Erawan shrine.
Thai police are still hunting the man in the yellow shirt, whose fuzzy visage on camera has been seen around the world. On Saturday, police detained a 28-year-old foreign man allegedly found with a trove of bomb-making materials in an apartment in the northern outskirts of Bangkok. He is one of five suspects subject to arrest warrants for the deadly blast, whose ultimate motive or purpose remains unclear.
As authorities seek out these suspects, they rely on people like Kasem. He is one of more than 100,000 motorcycle taxi drivers who cluster on Bangkok’s street corners, ready to provide swift rides through choked traffic or down narrow back-alleys, and who represent a network of eyes and ears.
These orange-vested speed demons are the city’s ultimate transportation equalizers, ferrying Thais of every type for the equivalent of little more than $10 a day. They are also inadvertent neighborhood lookouts, monitoring the city’s daily rhythms from their modest stands, which are often only a bench and a beach umbrella that provides refuge from the tropical sun.
I gave him a ride
In the Erawan bombing, the motorcycle taxi stands were the first stop for many police. That’s how Kasem, a middle-aged transplant from rural northeastern Thailand, realized he may have unwittingly served as the bomber’s getaway ride.
“I am still in shock and feel guilty about this event because I gave him a ride,” says Kasem, who recognized the suspect from a photo showed to him by officers the following morning. “I am having trouble sleeping, but I’m still continuing my job because I have to.”
Kasem and other drivers who may have transported the suspect this year all describe him as a tall, light-skinned foreigner who did not speak fluent Thai. One Thai investigator says the information collected from motorcycle drivers – along with ordinary taxi drivers and those piloting three-wheeled tuk-tuks – has been “very helpful” and “very consistent.” Motorbike taxi drivers are a unique resource for police, he adds, though he was not authorized to talk about the Erawan case.
“Bangkok is very special because we have motorcycle taxi drivers and tuk-tuks, and other cities don’t have these,” he said. “We have to talk to these people because they are in locations close to the crime scene. This is the first thing we have to do.”
Bangkok police and drivers have a long history of cooperation, though relations are not always friendly. Soon after motorcycle taxis started sprouting up in Bangkok in the early 1980s, the drivers were forced to pay police to overlook various illegal practices, such as their unauthorized use of public land. This dependence led to a mafia-style system of control, with police and other local officials “owning” the taxi stands and renting out the limited number of orange driving vests – akin to New York City’s taxi medallions – to turn a profit.
Grassroots organizing among the drivers, combined with legal reforms in recent years, has helped motorcyclists gain autonomy from the state, and recognition for their unique role. Yet despite some efforts to recruit and train drivers as volunteer informants, most of the motorcyclists’ cooperation with police remains informal.
Chalerm Changthongmadan, the chairman of a motorcycle taxi drivers association, wants more collaboration between officials and drivers, whose familiarity with the city's neighborhoods is unmatched. But significant obstacles still block a genuine partnership.
“Our relationship with police is still troubled by issues of trust,” he says. “During my 30 years of experience, I have seen that police and the military always work in league with drug businesses. And sometimes when we catch a criminal and call the police to come in, they will refuse to accept the case and admonish us for interrupting their work.”
Thai police award themselves $84,000
The precise extent that police used information gleaned from motorcyclists in their latest arrest is unknown. But police have made clear who they think most deserves the credit: themselves. On Monday, Thailand's police chief announced that his officers would collect the $84,000 award offered to anyone who could provide tip-offs leading to an arrest.
For his part, Mr. Chalerm is set on changing the public image of motorbike drivers, often depicted here as unruly migrants from Thailand’s rural provinces. Many of the men hail from rice farming villages in the neglected northeast, Thailand’s poorest region and a world apart from Bangkok’s skyscrapers and luxury malls. The drivers' image suffered among Bangkokians in 2010 when many lent their support to anti-establishment “redshirt” protesters who backed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist leader reviled by the city's conservative elite.
“We really want to help society,” said Chalerm. “And we really want people to see us as a better part of society.”
Pichit Seerueangphan, a motorcycle taxi driver from western Thailand questioned by police about the recent bombing, said he often helps police solve petty crimes, but has never been part of the hunt for a terrorist. Normally, his collaboration with police is more spontaneous, such as last week, when he hopped off his bike at an intersection to help police trap a young bag-snatcher on the run.
But he said he’s willing to help out in any way he can, and will start paying a little more attention to who’s getting on the back of his bike.