First published in Vice News February 6, 2016
Bangkok has a serious student violence problem.
In Thai media, barely a week passes without some mention of bloody brawls between students from the city’s numerous vocational colleges. In 2015, more than 1,000 cases were reported in Bangkok by mid-year, many of them resulting in serious injury and even death.
As the violence has intensified, the issue is now considered a significant public health issue.
Late last month, just a week ahead of the 83rd anniversary of the founding of Rajamangala University of Technology Tawan-ok Uthentawai (simply known as Uthentawai), Bangkok’s metropolitan police preemptively raided its campus and that of the school’s archrival, the Pathumwan Institute of Technology, located a short walk away. The bust produced two handguns and ammunition, 55 knives, six bulletproof vests, and materials for making nail bombs.
On Monday, the day of the anniversary, an incongruously heavy security presence at Uthentawai testified to this darker side of Thailand’s vocational and technical education system. Police officers and military personnel milled about, sniffer dogs patrolled the periphery, and two explosive ordnance disposal technicians stood by the front gate, which was ringed by metal detectors.
Online videos show students from a number of different colleges either ambushing or facing off with one another. They are usually armed with blunt weapons like clubs, but can also have knives and guns. A common setting is along public transportation routes, where students from opposing colleges are most likely to run into one another.
Students have been killed in drive-by assassinations, shot in cold blood on train stations, as well as routinely beaten and chased through the streets of Bangkok. While such a level of violence might seem crazy to outsiders, for those involved, rational thought plays little part in how rival students view one another.
“For me, it was never a question,” explained a former Uthentawai student who left school nine years ago, who asked to be identified as “Gan.”
“If I see someone from Pathumwan, we must fight. And they feel the same towards me.”
Just how the vocational interschool animosity originally started remains a mystery to students and researchers alike.
Nualnong Wongtongkam, a Thai lecturer and researcher in public health at Charles Sturt University, led a team that interviewed 32 students who had been involved in clashes in order to quantify their motivations. Though vengeance figured prominently, it was rarely clear what the students were trying to avenge.
“They don’t know why they have to engage in fighting with other schools,” said Nualnong. “When I ask them why they do it, considering they know there is a good chance they will be injured or maybe even killed, they say, ‘I know that, but if I don’t fight they will chase me anyway, so better to stand and fight.’ ”
Gan recalled his initiation into Uthentawai in 2005.
“This started on day one for me,” he said. “The seniors teach you how to carry a gun, how to conceal a knife from the police, how to love your brothers and how to hate your rivals — especially for us, Pathumwan.”
Once the student is within the fold, he’s among peers whose philosophy is to do almost anything for each other.
“If someone cannot afford tuition, we will all give a little money to help him pay,” Gan offered as an example. “Of course we would also help to pay [bail] if one of our class enforcers is arrested for doing a hit.”
In this culture, it doesn’t take long for the students to build a strong sense of brotherhood. Nualnong thinks this sense of belonging and self-worth is crucial to understanding why vocational and technical colleges have for so long been plagued with hyper-masculine reactive violence.
The perception of vocational colleges in Thailand has long been held as far inferior to that of established universities. The result, she says, is that some students themselves feel inferior and form a strong bond with their classmates, with whom they can readily identify. The resulting insularity is exacerbated by the fact only an estimated 10 percent of vocational and technical college students are female.
But this school spirit in the Bangkok vocational student scene can have an almost tribal effect, with an unquestioning adoption of animosity against rival institutions. This led Gan to regularly change his route when returning home from college, often taking multiple buses even though a direct option was available.
“They [Pathumwan] will watch you for your routes, to know where you live and how you travel after class in case they want to attack,” he said, adding simply, “We would do the same to them.”
An art graduate of Silpakorn University who asked to be identified as “Por” recalled experiencing this menace years ago.
He was having a late lunch after class at a spot near Victory Monument, one of Bangkok’s busiest traffic intersections and a major public transportation hub, when he was kicked to the floor from behind. A student from Indara Construction School placed a gun on the table, asking, “Do you want to eat your food, or my bullet?”
“I didn’t know him,” Por remarked with a shake of the head. “But it turned out someone from my school put some graffiti on something of theirs. He saw my uniform and so he picked on me.”
Nualnong’s research has emphasized that the wearing of distinctive uniforms in this hostile atmosphere, as vocational students are required to do, precipitates what would otherwise be easily avoidable fights, particularly on public transport. As a result, there’s a prevalence of anxiety among students traveling alone or in uniform.
Several measures have been considered in an attempt to address the bloodshed, from no longer accepting students with tattoos or piercings, to considering universalizing uniforms or abolishing them altogether, sending rival students to army-run boot camps — even introducing a free student auto repair service, launched by police last month, to occupy their time and keep them out of trouble. But no formal studies have assessed the effectiveness of such provisions.
This should soon change, as the increasing severity of attacks forces officials to respond to the issue more thoroughly and preemptively, beyond the conducting of police raids for weapons. Innocent bystanders and commuters find themselves caught in the fray and risking injury, and the belligerence can also target teachers. “It takes courage and determination to be in our shoes,” remarked a hairstylist instructor at Samut Prakan Vocational College not long ago.
“Now anyone on the streets can be injured from their fighting,” said Nualnong. “It’s not just the students anymore.”