A Day in a Life of Driver
Nom Klao Settlement, Bangkok

9:15 PM

The driver arrives back at his boss's place; drops off the Lexus van at the carport and continues by bus back to his house in the outskirt of Bangkok.

The community or rather the ‘settlement’ he lives is called Nom Klao. The people here live on the Crown Prince Bureau’s land for over 30 years since the late 1960s. It is a 14 Rai (2.24 Hectare) piece of land. The driver enters his hovel, removes his blue driver uniform, and takes a shower by manually fetching water - from a large round porcelain water basin – and pouring it onto himself. Soap is then applied to the body after it is sufficiently wet. After all is done, a water dipper is manually used again to rinse out all the remains of the soap. It’s now bed time for the driver. It’s just another day of work.

There is a picture of his wife and daughter on the dressing table. The dressing table and a large round mirror used to belong to his wife who had passed away some years ago. His teenage daughter had moved out 2 years ago; leaving the old man alone with his room, his dreams, and his past.

5:30 AM

The driver gets up early. He usually begins his morning routine by washing his face in a sink next to his bed. Then, in front of his house, he spends an entire hour sweeping leaves – with a long hemp broom - in slow meditative gestures. There are not a whole lot of leaves on the pavement but he insists on sweeping; each stroke is carefully planned and choreographed. It almost seems like he is trying to paint some sort of picture for all to see.

Thirty years ago, when his wife was still alive and he was still a young man in his 30s, this place used to be a marsh land and rice fields. There were about 4 houses around the area. It was then called “Grandpa Yord” place because an old man named Yord had been living here. Years later, however, the name was changed to “Nom Klao.” The driver was an ambitious young man; and like all other ambitious young men who grew up during the 50s and 60s, he wanted to drive a car.

The first car he drove was a Toyota. He formally got a job as a driver for the state university in 1973. He remembers it well, for in 1973 while driving a professor back from his trip to the countryside, his car was stuck in a large – 500,000 people – crowd of student protesters. It was the largest protest in Thai history. It was a sea of white shirts.

To him, it was a rather strange event, if not an outright annoyance. He just had a baby then and needed to go home early to attend to her. But instead, he had to spend 5 hours trying to get around Rajdamneon Road where the students rallied. He listened to the students who had spoken in strange languages with the word “people,” “justice” and “democracy” popping up in every sentence. He didn’t understand what they were up to and he was glad that the military had finally ended the protest for good in 1976. It was also the year his wife died of cancer.

From 1976 to 1980, the driver – now alone - raised his young daughter quietly among a few other families at Nom Klao settlement. The inhabitants grew from 4 households to a few hundred households during that time period. His daughter was attending a school nearby. It was a hard time for him; he needed more cash; and working as a driver for the university - the state - could not make ends meet.

Today he still feels the same disdain for the progressive - the activists - as he thinks that they are part of the elites who are against the privatization of state-owned industries. He thinks that the students were just "naughty sons and daughters of the elites" who, in the end, would go back and settle in their parents' million dollar estate and write books about their young years as "men of the people."

"Private enterprises are good," he once said to me. "Their services are much better than that of the state's. In the past, when I went into a local state office to ask for basic services - like water and phone connection - the custodian took one glance at my blue driver's uniform; she told me that drivers are not allowed beyond the reception desk. I asked her why and she told me that my dress is inappropriate. She said the office is reserved for businessmen only."

"Now when I go into a private company - a mobile phone company - they treat me like a prince! The guy who is servicing me wears Italian shoes that cost more than my entire monthly salary, but he still treats me with utmost respect and courtesies."

I once asked him what would happen if the private companies start to merge into a monopoly. He shrugged and maintained that he still prefers private enterprises to the state's - the Ka Rajkarn.

So he quit his job driving for the state university and lent his good hands to driving and transporting private developers. He was unaware that the land he was living on for years also belonged to a private enterprise; it actually belonged to the Crown Property Bureau.

In mid 1980, the Bureau moved hundreds of people from a nearby slum – where they had been evicted - to settle at Nom Klao settlement. Suddenly, his settlement swelled to over 200 households within 3 weeks. Most of the new folks were poor and they did not have the money to build new houses here, so – as time progressed - they ended up sub-leasing their allotted plots to private developers.

Although, the Bureau claimed that it had no policy of leasing their land to private developers, it was done informally by the residents themselves because they didn’t have the means nor the money to prepare the land (filling) and build their new homes.

Some developers later came and tell the residents that they were living on private land, and that they must leave immediately. Some residents who didn’t sell their rights to private developers later found out that they, too, were living on private land. And when they went to the Bureau to ask whether it had leased out the land to private developers, they said no, they had no such policy.

The driver told me once how one night, the developers came; and an old lady in her seventies was forcibly removed from her house – with the assistance of the police – and was gently placed on the pavement. She has no husband and no kids and no relative to take care of her. She was alone – just like him. It was a strange incident for him to be able to witness an old neighbor screamed, struggled, and cried all alone on the damped pavement. Her shivering voice still echoes in his ears today.

It’s now 6:00 AM. The driver continues sweeping the pavement with his long hemp bloom for another half and hour then he puts his hemp broom and his reflection aside. As he is finishing his morning shower, the phone rings. It is Suwatra, his boss. Another day of work has begun.

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After the 1993 incident in which several – including the old lady – had been evicted from their homes, the residents got together and formed a resistance group. They went to the Bureau to file a compliant on how the private developers had treated them.

In 2008 CODI has finalized the negotiation with the Bureau; it allows the squatters to lease its land through CODI for 30 years on a renewable basis. CODI also makes available 3,293, 655 baht in grant for infrastructure – electrical, plumbing, paving – upgrades at Nom Klao settlement. In addition to the grant, there is also a 2% loan available for housing improvement and repairs which amounts to 4,426,930 baht. Some new houses – designed by the residents and CODI’s architects – can be seen propping up in long rows. There are now 22 new units so far. The rest of the residents tend to concentrate more on making improvement to the existing houses and community layout.