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Preechawut “Prap” Keesin, one of Patong’s leading businessmen and a prime figure in the town’s hurly-burly transport structure, has spoken about the recent crackdown on taxis by police and the Royal Thai Army.
Mr Prap, who has on occasion been referred to as “Mr Big”, is the chairman of the Pisona group, which includes limo services and hotels, is President of the Patong Taxi Federation and a member of the Kathu Police Oversight Committee.
He is also a “person of interest” in the current police investigation masterminded by Pol Maj Gen Paween Poongsirin, Commander of the General Staff Division, Provincial Police Region 8.
“I wasn’t surprised that it happened,” he said. “If it hadn’t happened now it would have happened sometime in the future.
“I agree with the arrests of taxi drivers who have been behaving badly and committing crimes against tourists. They should all be arrested, including groups that have always refused to cooperate with officials.”
But he said he felt the way it was carried out was possibly too strong. “The action was like the tsunami – there was no escape. This time should be a time for harmony.”
He pointed out that there are many good taxi drivers, and wondered what they would do now tto earn a living.
“The officials have to answer to local people – if taxi drivers do not have jobs, what are they going to do for a living? It’s not as if they can go back to the family farm; Phuket is a tourist province, not an agricultural one.”
He said that multiple solutions must be applied to the problem, and that even those drivers who were arrested should get a second chance.
“The drivers who were arrested have been told they may not go back to their place of work. So how do they make a living? Now that they have been arrested and their salas knocked down, they have no work.”
Equally, he agreed that standards must improve. “Those who have done something wrong must reform themselves and cooperate with the government. Drivers must be of high standard with taxi licenses, and must be trained in good behaviour, and taxi queues must be well managed.”
The key, he said, is cooperation and communication. “Everyone should help each other – this is the basis of society. And everyone must obey the rules. Phuket is a tourism province, and should keep improving its services.
“Communication is key, particularly with hotels to ensure that everyone is happy.”
He made a plea for hotels and the government to set aside areas for taxis. “Some people support the action [against the taxi drivers], while others do not. The taxis want to ask for humanity from the government and from hotels, to share the area where they can make a living. They have a right to do that.”
“If they are simply regarded as ‘mafia’, the problem will never be solved. Taxi drivers should be given the chance to improve themselves. If they don’t, then yes, the law should apply.”
He also made a plea for taxi services to be a local monopoly. “The taxi business should be for local people alone, and the income should go to local Phuket people.”
Asked whether the blitz against taxis had solved the problem of unlicensed “black plate” taxis, he said, “Impossible. But the numbers will gradually decrease over time.”
Government should try to “control the masses” rather than individuals, he said, but this will take time and can only be achieved though persuasion, not coercion.
But, he added, “The action of the police was not pointless. It was valuable. It will have useful outcomes for sure. It will lead to national solutions and will improve the country’s tourism image.”
Mr Prap’s relationship with the authorities has long been ambiguous.
In August last year he was named by the DSI as one of the “influential” people they proposed to investigate.
Yet he and his father, former Patong Mayor Pian Keesin (also fingered by the DSI), were instrumental in ensuring that the bus service from the airport was allowed to pick up passengers from the town without opposition from local taxi and tuk-tuk drivers.
He himself said, “I have cooperated with officials for 10 years to try to address the problem of black-plate taxis. This had had some positive results, with some problems solved.”
In March this year he visited the leaders of the tuk-tuk mob that blocked roads in Patong and declared that he thought it was a bad idea and tried – unsuccessfully – to persuade the leaders to back down.
Since the Army took power, the leaders of the mob have been arrested.