Wed, Sep 01, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Angels lose their halos in Bangkok

When the boys come out to play in Thailand's capital city, it means trouble


In Thailand's City of Angels, the bad boys have come out to play. With their armories of guns, knives and home-made bombs, fierce fighting between feuding students in Bangkok has seen schools closed and public hand-wringing over the state of the nation's youth.

After a year of violence between teenagers that has seen at least three students and two bystanders killed and hundreds more hurt, Thailand's political leaders have decided to act. Even Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra got involved.

"Young students do not fight each other," he lectured in his latest weekly radio address. "It's pointless, as you will realize later, causes your parents grief and sorrow and jeopardizes your own futures."

The latest fighting culminated in running battles involving nearly 100 students last week that left nine injured and the education ministry ordering two schools shuttered for a chance to bring their students into line, or face permanent closure.

A total of 12 schools have been placed on a government watchlist because of violent behavior, according to newspaper reports.

The main culprits in the street fights are vocational students, who are typically aged 16 to 18 and learn trades in lieu of their final three years of high school.

Bangkok -- named Krung Thep [City of Angels] by Thais -- has long been the battleground between rival student gangs, despite Thailand's reputation for peaceful Buddhist values.

Students attest to the level of violence that has been used in nearly 2,000 attacks recorded by police in the Thai capital from October to July this year. One claimed that students have secret caches of weapons that they plunder before launching attacks.

"The only one thing the other students can do is get as far away from there as they can," he said.

In one incident on Aug. 17, a youngster on a bus was stabbed to death by students from a rival school.

In August last year, two vocational students died and about 100 were wounded during a massive street brawl at an outdoor concert, while last December saw two bystanders killed in as many days, including a 21-year-old female university student who was caught in the crossfire.

Some officials believe the groundwork for student violence was laid in the 1970s when they were at the vanguard of opposition to military rule in the kingdom.

Three years after demonstrations brought an end to an era of authoritarian military rule in 1973, increasingly radical students were brutally crushed in a right-wing backlash that ended a brief democratic experiment that took several years to revive.

However, the education community is divided over the motivation for the current conflict. While some claim the fighting is based on a 20-year history of resistance based around fierce loyalty to their schools, others claim disaffected teenagers just fancy a ruck.

Officials said that after fights, winners often ripped the belts with heavy metal buckles stamped with their school's logo from their prone victims to brandish as trophies. "They maintain these wrong ideas that if you want to be a hero or part of a gang, you have to find the stuff of rival schools like their belts or their uniforms," said one education official.

"They will pass information from generation to generation about where they hide their weapons," she said.

But other officials said that only fighting gave some students a role in life, with few interested in the scholarships that could help them tap the opportunities in one of the fastest expanding economies in Southeast Asia.

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