By Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's transport authorities have begun a crackdown on drivers for ride-hailing services Uber and Grab and want the military government to ban them, a transport official said on Tuesday.
U.S.-based Uber has faced regulatory hurdles around the world and when it began operating in Thailand in 2014 the Department of Land Transport said its drivers were not properly registered or insured and its payment system did not meet regulations.
But authorities have previously done little to stop Uber or other ride-hailing services as they have grown in popularity among Thais and foreign visitors in the major tourist center.
Authorities had already fined 23 Uber drivers in Bangkok this week compared to only 83 others since Uber began operations, said Sugree Carupom, an official at the department, adding that Grab drivers too have been fined, though not as many. Drivers who are caught will now also have licenses suspended for up to six months and be fined 2,000 baht ($57).
"We're using stricter measures," Sugree told Reuters. "The services are worrying because it is hard for the government to regulate."
The department's deputy director-general Nanthapong Cherdchu said it would ask the junta to use an emergency measure to shut down the app if need be because it was disrupting the traditional public transport system and encouraging Thais to break the law.
Uber, which has a website in Thai for drivers to sign up, said it would work with authorities to make clear the benefits of ride-sharing in the country.
"Uber remains committed to creating reliable transportation for everyone," Uber spokeswoman Amy Kunrojpanya said in a statement to Reuters. Grab's representative was not immediately available for comment.
Ride booking services such as Uber and Grab's GrabCar have won popularity in the nation of 67 million for often being cheaper and less likely to refuse to take passengers to their destinations than regular taxis, but they have irked traditional taxi drivers.
Uber and GrabCar are being targeted by the authorities because they are the only two popular services in Thailand which private car owners can use to pick up passengers.
Taxi drivers in the tourist town of Chiang Mai were carrying out their own sting operations to turn Uber and GrabCar drivers in to authorities, said Chanchai Kilapaeng, the head of the local transport office.
But regular Uber client Putti Orungrochkul, a 24-year-old tech entrepreneur in Thai capital Bangkok, said banning Uber goes against Thailand's stated vision of becoming an innovative and digitally-driven society.
"If the government really cares about the people, they will find a middle ground," he told Reuters.
($1 = 35.07 baht)
(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Muralikumar Anantharaman)