Straight-talking Nathani Uthairat doesn't bat an eyelid when he says his rowdy past is behind him. During a break between classes, the third-year student at Samut Prakan Polytechnic College, who once had a chequered history with student gangs, spoke candidly about his resolve to complete his final year with distinction, and launch his career as a promising mechanic at a factory in Samut Prakan.
Nathani Uthairat is happiest when learning new skills.
"Carrying out attacks on each other's turf doesn't benefit anyone, only the ego of the gang leader," said the 18-year-old with conviction.
Falling short of calling himself a reformed student gang leader, he added: "What I can say is that I have seen a friend die and close acquaintances physically disabled because of the senseless hostility gangs of marauding students carry within themselves."
Nat, as he is known to friends, says strategies devised by authorities to combat student violence have done little to change the state of affairs because the decision to stop feuding largely hinges on the students in question. He came to this conclusion due to his own decision to get his life together. While family and teachers can positively influence wayward youth into taking charge of their lives, he said it depended on them to walk away from any volatile situation that could erupt into a fight.
To ease confrontation amongst rival students, Nat suggests joint activities and camping trips be organised for the youth in such colleges to get to know each other on a more personal level. There is probably a greater chance of camaraderie between both parties if they can spend quality time together on neutral ground.
Media coverage on such issues is also rather one-sided, lamented the teenager. More often than not, he has found that both television and print media don't dig deep enough to give a balanced report of what transpired in attacks that result in a student's death or in injury.
"Such news coverage often makes the victim out to be innocent, which is not usually the case. There is a very real reason behind such a criminal act.
"Society shouldn't judge us all as being rabble-rousers. There are delinquents in all walks of life. Despite the negative coverage vocational schools receive, I would like to say that there are many well-behaved and smart students among us that are working hard towards a good future. We must not forget that vocational students are the backbone of Thailand's industrial sector, so we really have to work harder to get to the root case of this problem."
Judging from Nat's experience, outside factors that contribute to student violence include public buses that refuse to pick them from the bus stop in front of their college for fear of trouble. When classes get off at 4.30pm and polytechnic students don't catch their ride home in time, he said the chances of clashes with students from neighbouring colleges, who use the same bus stop at a later hour, is high if they come together. Survival tactics to keep safe include keeping a low profile by hanging out in small groups, in addition to having a fast pair of legs for when it is time to confront an adversary, said Nat.
Thai law enforcement could also be more proactive in their approach towards settling this crisis, he said.
''When a student gang from a rival college threw a homemade bomb into our college recently, all the police did was watch from a safe distance. When we asked why they didn't bring the culprit to justice, they said it wasn't necessary because nobody was hurt,'' said Nat.
''Then there was this time that I had an altercation with another gang member and we were taken to the police station. The officer on duty didn't take me seriously when I told him that my adversary had a sword on him and that he wanted to use it on me.
''He could not be bothered to do a body search. In fact, I had to inform the officer where the weapon was hidden on my foe. It was only then the policeman told him to pay a fine of a few hundred baht for a carrying a weapon in public.
''When I further inquired why criminal charges could not be filed against the perpetrator, he plainly said because I did not have a bruise on me. So I asked him, 'Does that mean I have to get hurt or die before a charge can be filed?', and he was speechless.''
While a teacher looks on, Jamorn Ngunchai, middle, and Suwattana Bancheun, right, learn through practice.
Caught in the middle of no man's land
At the culmination of yet another school day, there is an air of trepidation in the hallways of Samut Prakan Technical College as second-year students Suwattana Bancheun and Jamorn Ngunchai prepare to leave for home.
The chatter among the two best friends sums up the fear most vocational students face on a regular basis _ how to stay clear of rival student gangs and get home without a scratch. As the new term has just begun, violence between rival colleges has been stepped up to determine who rules supreme.
Suffice to say both students, who are majoring in electronics, have had their share of brushes with the senseless and destructive feuds of student gangs since deciding to take up vocational studies. The onslaught of attacks are usually conducted for the most meaningless reasons, they said, and is largely based on which gang is the more superior of the two. Their tiny physical frames and unassuming demeanour make them easy prey for gangs to bully at will, so it doesn't come as a surprise that not a day goes by that the thought of being attacked doesn't cross their minds.
Jamorn, 16, says the overwhelming feeling of dread is not a figment of his imagination because he has had first-hand experience of being chased by knife-wielding student gangs from nearby colleges. A scar on the back of his calf is testament to this.
Seventeen-year-old Suwattana has similar stories to share. While he has been fortunate to not have been seriously hurt, he has had a gun pointed at him a handful of times by rival gangs extorting money.
When asked what made them opt to not join a college gang _ which would help them get protection from other gang members and retribution on anyone who harms them in return for their allegiance _ both boys felt it was not worth putting their future at risk by doing so.
Jamorn spoke for the pair when he said: ''We might not be the brightest in studies, but nevertheless, we want to make something of our life. We want a future. Being a gang member means you have to serve the leader, and very much be there at his beck and call. We have opted to to stay in a small group of like-minded students who look out for each other. Being in a smaller group is one way to be inconspicuous. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. But that is the life of a vocational student, and we have to live with it.''
Vulnerable as they are to clashes with student rabble-rousers, Suwattana said to keep safe before and after school, it was imperative for them to find ways and means to protect themselves from brushes with rival gangs that taunt and bully them to show their dominance.
Students waiting at the main school bus stop where neighbouring college students meet their rides during morning and evening rush hours become soft targets to such attacks, he said. To play it safe, every suspicious motorcyclist is scrutinised to ascertain whether or not they need to sprint to the nearest hideout.
School attire most sought-after by opposing gang members includes anything with a college emblem. To distance themselves from being victims of senseless feuds, they wear casual clothes in the morning to college and change into their uniform later. To not stand out from the crowd, Jamorn sometimes wears the uniform of a high school student to disguise himself when he is at the mall with friends.
To stay out of harm's way, the duo leave home at the crack of dawn.
Reaching college early is better than having an altercation with a rival student gang, said Jamorn.
A handful of times, the pair have gotten off a bus when they sense a student from a rival college has come in the guise of a normal passenger, and could mean them harm.
On the issue of police intervention, Suwattana said he would prefer for law enforcement officers to be more impartial when they decide who has instigated the unrest.
''By the time the police arrive, the culprits are not at the scene of the crime, and so without asking questions they just assume we are the guilty party.'' As Samut Prakan is a hub for vocational schools, which unfortunately are at each other's throats, the families of both boys made the decision for them to study at government-run Samut Prakan Technical College.
After weighing the pros and cons, they came to the conclusion that this institution would best suit the needs of the boys' futures.
Suwattana summed up the common fears of most parents of vocational students by saying: ''My parents were sceptical about the idea of sending me to this college at first because it has had its share of incidents involving run-ins with student gangs that have made headline news. However, I was able to convince them that I will be extra careful and study hard to pave a bright future for myself. They gave in, but constantly remind me to be vigilant when I leave home.''
Related search: Samutparkan
About the author
- Writer: Yvonne Bohwongprasert