What is causing Phuket's transport woes?
PHUKET: It is an often cited cause of angst among both tourists and residents on Phuket – what to do about the rising instances of violence involving the island’s taxis and tuk-tuks.
Friday 16 September 2011, 05:07PM
Last month alone, there were two reported blockades by drivers, and three separate incidents of people being beaten by mobs of drivers.
A very small percentage of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers are responsible for the trouble, according to Pol Maj Gen Pekad Tantiwong, Commander of Phuket Police.
However, the reputation of Phuket as an international destination rests on those few, as tuk-tuk issues continue to garner negative publicity for the island.
But how has it come to this, when even the island’s top officials are unable – or unwilling – to step in and make a change?
Taxis and tuk-tuk violence is an issue that has been around for some time, but has become more intense in recent years, according to Vice Governor Niwit Aroonrat. Problems involving taxis and tuk-tuks have risen slowly as Phuket’s tourism industry grows more prosperous.
“We’ve allowed them to continue [their misbehaviour] for too long, and now they are too strong and hold far too much influence,” V/Gov Niwit said.
The drivers are, in effect a law unto themselves. They operate their own set of rules for dealing with disputes, and are often beyond the reproach of the police.
The long and tumultuous history of Phuket’s taxi and tuk-tuk rules began about 30 years ago, when older tuk-tuk and taxi drivers formed a verbal agreement on how they would divide the island and operate without conflict. The rules were devised to prevent conflict among the drivers, as well as retain a positive reputation for the tourism industry.
A zoning system was created to outline the particular territory of each “group” of local drivers. Drivers would not be allowed to pick up within a zone that was not theirs.
Certain standards of behaviour were also agreed upon, such as not abusing passengers, and not drink- driving.
“However, the spoken rules are not laws. It works based on common sense,” Pathum Yodkaew, the secretary of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers in Kata and Karon, said.
In 1996, as Mr Pathum recalled, the Kata and Karon tuk-tuk and taxi drivers wrote an introduction manual for local drivers in their area – probably the first such manual to be put in writing on Phuket.
The manual states violence is stictly forbidden against passengers, or against other people while carrying passengers. Copies of the manual were given to local drivers in Kata and Karon area, as well as distributed to drivers in other areas.
The leaders of each respective group were chosen, and they were deemed responsible for their member’s behaviour.
About 100 radio scanners were given to drivers, so they would be contacted if any guests closed to their ranks needed taxi service.
The idea was reasonable in principle, but failed to take into account the corrupting influence that money can have.
“The system hasn’t worked very well in the past decade,” Mr Pathum said. “Many drivers don’t follow the rules. Scanners were left damaged and unused. You can’t perfectly control different people who come from different places with different levels of education.”
He said the real start of the problems with taxis and tuk-tuks began about 10 years ago, when Phuket tourism began its boom and drivers cared less about maintaining the unity of the group and more about cashing in.
That sudden influx of wealth also brought with it new drivers looking to cash in – many from outside provinces – and the number of drivers grew uncontrollably in a short period of time.
“It’s become totally out of control since then,” Mr Pathum said. “It’s not like in the past where senior drivers could instruct younger ones, or compromise could be reached between groups.”
He’s not the only one who is frustrated by the shortsightedness of that mentality.
“Today, the problems are not just about greedy drivers and drivers breaking the rules,” a Patong tuk-tuk driver, who preferred to remain anonymous, said. “It’s complicated, as personal benefit and politics has become so closely embroiled in how the system operates.”
He said hundreds of taxis and tuk-tuks on the island are not registered, and more than half of them are from other provinces.
“If you are not registered, you can escape from trouble you’ve made easily,” he said. “As many drivers are not local, they can easily flee Phuket after they cause problems and wait until everything settles down before they return.”
The zoning system, originally designed to prevent conflict, has also evolved into an ugly source of ongoing turf wars that is fueling violence. The most recent example is a driver from Kok Chang elephant trekking company, who was attacked by drivers from a taxi rank in front of Cape Sienna on September 4. The attackers claimed the zone as “theirs”, and blamed the victim for breaking the “rules”.
The response to boundary protection varies by ‘group’, Silapachai Choosen, the manager of Kok Chang, said.
“It can involve simply asking a driver from another zone to identify himself, or can be as aggressive as beating others,” he said.
The aggressive reaction of drivers to the zoning system, though, has been contagious, and quickly spread from one rank to another, Mr Silapachai noticed.
“Laws are not being enforced. So [drivers think to themselves] ‘if one rank can beat people, why can’t another?’” he said. “Now the situation is progressing like a cancer.”
The situation has become so dire, and violence so ingrained into driver culture, that even government intervention is looked at with hesitancy for fear of reprisal.
“The island will be set on fire if extreme measures are taken to crack down on taxis and tuk-tuks,” said V/Gov Niwit. “Like I said, their groups are too influential now.”
A new quality system, however, will soon be implemented in Kata and Karon to improve the situation of taxis and tuk-tuks.
With collaboration from local administrators, lead by V/Gov Niwit, police and drivers themselves, each taxi ranks’ vehicles, drivers’ behaviour and fare range will be inspected.
Quality stickers and certificates will be given if ranks pass the inspection, making it easier for passengers to make informed choices.
“I hope these problems will soon be over,” said V/Gov Niwit. “Laws need to be seriously enforced on drivers.”
Until that time comes, the violence continues.
– Paritta Wangkiat