Boot Camp for Thai Gang Leaders

It’s funny that in a country where the military is, according to many, the strongest force in the nation, pretty much every solution is solved with a bootcamp. Drug addict? A bootcamp run by the military is often an alternative to prison.

Thai gang wars are another growing problem, and the government has set up a bootcamp in Lopburi for the gang leaders.

Sixteen soldiers from the army’s First Psychology Unit mixed boot camp drills with icebreaking activities, including song-and-dance numbers in which officers and gang leaders swiveled their hips and sang crude songs.

One exercise, holding hands and bowing to each other, met some resistance.

Next came group meditation before a Buddhist altar. “Put your mind to rest,” a soothing voice said over loudspeakers, as the gang leaders lowered their gaze and sat cross-legged on the floor. “All the confusion and turbulence in your mind, put it away.”

The students wore matching white T-shirts printed with the slogan, “Reconciliation. Learn to Love. Unity.” Most didn’t fit the image of an inner-city thug. Fresh-faced with trim haircuts, they were polite and answered questions thoughtfully.

Few saw an end to the violence. In many cases, spotting a rival school’s badge on a belt buckle is enough to spark a fight.

“The problem is almost a tradition. It’s been passed down from generation to generation,” said Issara Kummin, 17, the student with scars on his scalp and forearm. He got them in June, he said, when 20 kids jumped him as he stepped off a bus.

He considers himself lucky: One of his friends was shot and killed in February while getting off a bus.

“I want revenge,” he said, softly. “We’re seen as the bad guys. But people don’t know what we’re up against. If we don’t fight, we’ll be killed.”

A 16-year-old student at the Bangkapi School of Technology has been arrested for the killing of the boy on the bus. He allegedly fired the shots about 6:30 a.m. after an all-night booze binge. He reportedly told police his handgun cost 2,000 baht ($65).

“I’ve been here 20 years, I never thought I would see that,” said Somsak Karparyoon, a gym teacher at Bangkapi, which sits amid Bangkok’s northeastern industrial sprawl.

He walks the school grounds with a thin bamboo cane to whack students who arrive late, cut class or have their shirts untucked. Asked how often he uses it, he laughed and said, “Very often.”

Teachers at the school escort students to and from the nearby bus stop and search the surrounding streets for hidden weapons. Trade schools in the area have staggered hours, so students will be less likely to cross paths. Riding the bus remains the most dangerous part of the day.

“You can’t ever doze off on the bus. It’s too risky,” said Watcharin Khusuwan an 18-year-old junior studying auto mechanics at Bangkapi.

“I can’t remember how many times my bus has been attacked. So many times,” he said. He glanced at his watch and apologized. School had ended 15 minutes earlier, and he was wearing his school uniform. “I’m sorry. I have to leave. It’s getting risky to be outside.”

As Patrick Winn noted in his interesting related article Thailand: Tech school wars:

Violent tech school posses are called “gangs,” but they’re much more akin to the Westside Story’s Sharks and Jets, who battled over turf and bragging rights, than crime syndicates like the Bloods and Crips. These brawls are fought for adolescent glory and little else.

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