City Life: Bangkok: Troops used to teach teen gangs to love one another

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The Independent Online
THAILAND'S courts are so fed up with vicious student gangs, armed with homemade knives and guns, that they are sending the trouble- makers to boot camp.

Hardened soldiers at an army base in Petchaburi, 100 miles south of Bangkok, are more used to training Thailand's crack paratrooper and border-patrol units, but the teen gangsters are proving no match.

The camp is seen as the best solution to the menace of warring gangs, whose members fight rivals from other colleges to defend their institution's honour. So far, one person has been killed and two others pack raped.

First-year students - often forced to join gangs by their peers - prove themselves by snatching school shirts or belt buckles, beating up opponents or spraying graffiti on college walls. The gangsters often patrol their turf in cars, attacking rival students who stray into their territory.

Many students are now so frightened of the gangs that they remove their shirts before travelling by bus. Chatchai Deekhamnok, 16, who chose to go to the boot camp rather than spend a month in a correctional institute, says he and his girlfriend have been attacked by a rival gang. "They wanted my workshop shirt and although I took it off and gave it to them they slapped me in the face. A student from my school refused and a knife was brought down on his head." The city bus company says there are now five or six fights a day on its buses.

Last month, a student boarded a Bangkok bus and asked: "Is there anyone here from Chalermsarn School?" When Thitiphong Itchayawiroj stood up, he was shot three times. He died on the way to hospital.

Now the teenagers are being forcibly rehabilitated by boot-camp trainers using techniques such as making them to suck toffees, while listening to bedtime Buddhist teachings from a temple abbot.

The first batch of shaven-headed miscreants, many of whom are from rival gangs, have been getting to know each other, army-style. The 51 inductees on the two-week course rise at 5.30am and perform drill duties, press- ups, tower jumping and assault courses races. Many end up fainting.

Community activities - such as giving blood and cleaning local temples, are supposed to instill a sense of personal responsibility. And they are shown how well off they are during visits to local slums. "Our goal is to make them friends and stop them hating each other," said Colonel Anurson Laimek, the company chief.

The Education Ministry has suggested that all first-year students wear standard uniforms to avoid being identified. It has also been marking schools for bad behaviour, drawing up a list based on the number of street brawls, drunkenness, bus hold-ups, rapes, robbery, extortion and the use of guns and knives. The ministry says it may close the worst schools.

Politicians and social workers blame the violence on everything from poor teaching and the decline of Buddhism to the influence of computer games and the breakdown of family life. But parents claim there are too few healthy activities for children apart from wandering around shopping malls, watching television or going to the city's notorious bars and red-light areas.

The boot camp seems to be working. Buddhist teachings and lectures focusing on the law, drugs and sexually transmitted diseases, along with the tough physical regime, have proved too much for some. The hard nuts have cracked. "It's all right for men to weep. We are just human," said Thammarat Thetkratuek, who has survived the regime.

James East