BANGKOK – Yupa Prai-ngam’s body lay slumped on her bus seat like a dozing passenger. Around her, forensic police cased the scene, zipping up the corpse of her fellow victim, 21-year-old art student Wanchai Thongsaengkaew, and dragged him away.
Yupa, 48, was returning home to Bangkok’s suburbs, when at about 6:20 pm a group of students ambushed the vehicle at a bus stop and opened fire. Police believe the attack was the result of a feud between rival student gangs; in the end, the incident claimed the lives of two innocent passengers.
According to Manit Wongsomboon, deputy commissioner of the city police, there were 1,222 cases of student violence reported in Bangkok and its suburbs in 2012 – a rate of about 100 cases per month. He estimates about 20 of these resulted in death or severe injury.
Most of the clashes take place between students at vocational colleges – academies that train pupils to become machinists, electricians, and other specific trades – who carry on a longstanding tradition of fighting adversaries from rival schools to preserve institutional pride.
But increasingly the fighting is spilling over into society at large. Last month, an altercation between more than 50 vocational students at a charity concert led to rioting and reports of gunshots. The event was shut down early as more than 700 police officers struggled to restore calm.
The problem, both the police and the army warn, is getting worse.
“Before, the violence would happen more randomly. Now it is more organised. The gangs are starting to use social networks to set up places to gather, like at the charity concert,” said army spokesman Wanchana Sawasdee.
“All this has an effect on other people, who now almost schedule their lives around the violence. They think, ‘I live near this school, so I’ll take detours to not be at the wrong place at the wrong time’.”
The escalation of hostilities is having a bigger impact on students who say they are reluctant to fight. “These days, when you find weapons on students, mostly they’re carrying it for self-defence,” explained Sawasdee.
One student named Pon, who like all the students interviewed for this article asked to be identified only by his nickname, told Al Jazeera that he been “involved in some violence, but I’ve never been the instigator.
“I’ve been stabbed before,” he added.
“I commute with a pretty big group of friends from my school by bus. Often we run into kids from our rival school and a fight would ensue. It usually starts with some hateful words being thrown around and would eventually escalate into a brawl. There are always weapons or tools involved, sometimes even a gun,” Pon said.
Deputy Commissioner Manit spread out a number of casefiles from 2012, pointing out pictures of weapons confiscated from vocational students, whose education often revolves around the use of dangerous tools. The photos reveal guns, knives, machetes, hammers, hooked rods, and even homemade swords.
“Once, the police were called in by someone who spotted a big group of students ready for trouble. We searched them and found a modified pistol that shoots shotgun shells,” said Manit.
‘Almost like a war’
When asked about the cause of the clashes, most point to the historical enmity between vocational schools. “It is mainly about long rivalries between the schools,” said Pon. “It is something that is passed down to us, what we are told to do to show our loyalty.”
Wanchana and Manit said disreputable seniors and alumni, who have built up formidable reputations, pressure freshmen to emulate their actions.
‘’There’s basically a form of hazing to initiate new students, creating a culture of respecting elder students in a sort of fraternity of violence,” Manit explained. “Some of these schools have had rivalries for longer than I have been in the police force.”
“Students feel they have to fight to gain the respect of their peers or of the other schools, and it quickly becomes a cycle of revenge. They will take revenge on any student from the school that has wronged them – it doesn’t have to be the actual instigator. It’s almost like a war.”
Scrambling to find solutions, the army has set up a 10-week boot-camp-style training course. Administrators from the vocational schools select problem students and dispatch them to the camp, sometimes threatening to keep them from graduating if they do not participate.
The camp instills discipline, said Wanchana. Students are made to wake up, cook meals, and meditate together. Most of the activities are collaborative, not competitive, aiming to get the kids to see their rivals in a friendlier light.
“One mother was so overwhelmed by the changes she saw after her child’s training, she cried, saying she was able to have a meal with her entire family for the first time in years,” Wanchana noted.
Wanchana divides the 157 children who have passed through the camp into three groups: those who are unchanged, those who change completely, and those who fall somewhere in the middle. “This middle group, next time they’re in a bad situation, maybe they will hesitate. This hesitation is a very important turning point.”
Deer, another vocational student who has successfully completed the training, said he no longer goes looking for trouble. However, he noted that his troubles are not yet over. “I have to constantly be in survival mode. I have not been a part of any violence since [the camps], but if I happen to end up at the wrong place at the wrong time, I will defend myself,” he said.
The root of the problem
Wanchana recognises that the camp can only have a limited impact. “With this camp we are not addressing the root of the problem. We are only addressing the tail-end of the problem,” he said.
Institutional pride is merely an excuse, according to Montri Sintawichai, founder of the Child Protection Foundation. Behind it lie the complex forces of teenage angst and the shortcomings of Thailand’s social fabric.
“A Japanese artist said: ‘Thailand is known as the land of smiles, and yes, the Thais do smile easily. But if you look into their eyes, they are sad,” he said.
‘’These children see, on a regular basis, kids with powerful parents toss their fathers’ names around and get out of trouble. Kids learn that if they are the bully when they leave school, they will have more authority.”
Gor – a freshman at the Uthen Thawai campus of Rajamangala University of Technology, one of the capital’s most notorious trade schools – believes that vocational students, most of whom come from poor families, are stigmatised by the media.
“Most of the fighting is not because of institutional pride, it’s just normal teen angst. We feel the traditional schools have similar problems, but in the media they are glorified. Some of the more prestigious schools can cover up what goes on there better than we can,” Gor said.
Montri recommended that Thailand – where about 10 million guns are owned by civilians, most of them unregistered – needs to accept responsibility for the examples it is setting for these children.
“In Thailand, violence is everywhere: children see it in the streets every day. Not only do we need to make it harder for kids to access weapons, but also for adults. Kids think, ‘Oh, mom and dad carry guns and it makes people respect them, so I should too’.” – Maher Sattar