Friday, 14 September 2012
Thailand's Vocational Students
For the last three decades, a whirlwind of violence has swept through Thailand’s vocational schools, colleges infamous for breeding teenage gangs who fight for the perceived honour of their institution. The indiscriminate nature of the teen savagery has been well documented in the Thai media; however, little has been done to prevent the escalation of the conflict. So what drives the youngsters to commit such heinous crimes? Who is to blame? And most importantly, what is being done to stop it? The truth is that no one really knows, and the authorities have been grappling with these issues for decades. In this blog, I am going to attempt to unravel some of these issues and shed some light on a cultural black spot that, up to this very day, shows no sign of reaching a peaceful resolution.
By the end of May this year, there had been 385 inter-school clashes on the street of Bangkok. Of these, 165 happened between 3pm and 6pm (http://www.bangkokpost.com/breakingnews/295451/385-school-brawls-so-far-this-year). Statistics like this, severe as they are, are likely to cloak the true nature of the epidemic which is spiraling dangerously out of control, not only of the capital streets, but also in the provinces. I have personal experience of one such attack in Phuket, an island famed for its pearly white sands. On one particular evening, I witnessed a group of 10/15 teenagers being set upon by a student wielding a baseball bat. In the fracas, a member of the group pulled out a gun and attempted to shoot the attacker in the head. He missed and smashed a window only metres from where we were sitting. Incidents like these are commonplace on the streets of a country that is losing its grip on teen violence. In June, students opened fire on a public bus in Bangkok killing two innocent people (http://www.bangkokpost.com/learning/easier-stuff/298164/student-violence-leaves-two-dead). Moreover, in July an armed motorcycle chase left three students dead and another three critically injured in Kalasin, causing a public outcry (http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/local/301820/three-killed-three-hurt-in-student-shooting). However, critically, there have been few policy initiatives to curb the culture of ultra-violence which threatens to boil over at the commencement of each school day. The authorities appear to be treading water on an issue that needs urgent attention.
In the fuzzy aftermath of any atrocity, there is always one question that has an unparalleled position of importance in the discourse – “why?” The media are always on the scene to present distraught mothers, hysterical fathers and deflated friends who all splutter the same words into the camera, perplexed as to the reasoning behind yet another senseless death. Adults remain baffled by the reasoning used to condone acts of extreme violence by students and their peers. Most often institutional honour is stated to be the causal factor behind the violence. This assertion is weak as the very idea of being proud in attending a vocational college is a cultural improbability. Thais, as a people, take hierarchy very seriously indeed, and it is measured, on the whole, by one determining factor: wealth. Of course there are some regional differences, but on the whole, this is how an individual’s position on the social ladder is brought about. Furthermore, this societal pecking order is far from fluid. If you are born poor, poor is what you are and will be. Notions of social mobility are not part of the Thai psyhe, and if they were, they would be swiftly blocked by those in positions of power, managers, politicians etc. Throughout the day people assert their authority with their social position firmly in mind. It is the determining factor in how Thais interact with those around them. Thus, in Thailand you have two distinct sets of youngsters: those with money, who attend university and get a theoretical education; and those who attend vocational college and learn a trade. The schism between these two worlds is deep. Adhering to the laws of hierarchy, the university students, and society at large, view the technical students with quiet distain. They are swept under the carpet, hidden away from the watchful eyes of the Thai media, where game shows and soap operas perpetuate a myth of university as the Promised Land; those who fail to adorn the famous black and white (university) uniforms are looked at with varying degrees of disrespect. This dividing up of the countries youth foreshadows their future. Those wearing dark blue (vocational) know their place within a society that has already branded them as failures. Obviously, in a county where face is of the utmost importance, this creates an explosive inferiority complex. Being told at the age of sixteen that you have to attend a vocational institution causes not only the individual, but also their nearest and dearest, a huge drop in status. As a result, it is contested that this cultural perception causes a bubbling resentment in the heart of technical students around the country; however, this seething anger is turned inwards upon the only section of society they can relate to: their vocational peer group. Why do they not fight the university students who belittle them in open conversation, you may ask? The reason for this is simple. Culture does not permit it. Thais inherent sense of their place within society is so deeply ingrained that they rarely, in my experience, transgress the rules of the game. Therefore, due to a complex set of rules and procedures dictated by culture, vocational college students turn on each other in ritualistic outpourings of frustration, causing death, social unrest and ironically, promoting themselves in exactly the same light as to solidify their lowly position within the social hierarchy.
In the past twelve months the Thai government has set up military style boot camps for the most violent vocational college students (http://www.thaivisa.com/forum/topic/581831-thailand-grapples-with-killer-student-gangs/). While at the boot camp, individuals undergo physical training and military discipline in an attempt to reform their character and show them the errors of their ways. This is a positive pro-active step in the right direction for a country that is on the whole reactive in nature; however, for it to become more than a media sound bite, long term governmental financial commitment is a must. This remains to be seen. Aside from this policy little else has been done to alleviate the chaos.
The above questions have never been answered and probably never will be, but in an attempt to highlight the issue, I have thrown in my views, however erroneous they may be, for the sake of pushing discourse forward in a country where opinions often fall on deaf ears. There is no doubt that something needs to change in Thailand. Violence of this ferocity can’t be allowed to perpetuate. But with government policy only scraping the surface, this is a thirty year conflict that is here to stay.