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Thailand: Tech school wars

A violent coming-of-age for the boys who power Thailand’s industrial sector.

Thai students
Students from Bangkok's Chao Phraya Technical School hang out and munch fish cakes after the day's final classes. A rash of beatings and gunfights between Bangkok's feuding school students has authorities struggling to reign in the violence. Most attacks break out when students spot other teenagers wearing a rival school's insignia. (Patrick Winn/GlobalPost)

BANGKOK, Thailand — In the early morning of Sept. 1, along a dingy industrial stretch of Bangkok, a panicked teenager leapt onto a commuter bus.

Through the window, passengers saw his pursuers: a shouting pack of 20-odd schoolboys in matching starched shirts. Many gripped wooden sticks. Some pelted the bus with glass bottles. The driver mashed the gas pedal.

Then came the gunshots. Bullets punched through the bus’ rusty siding and blew out the back windows. When the passengers finally raised their heads, they saw a small boy bleeding out in the aisle.

Four shells had missed their target — the fleeing teenager — and instead killed Jatuporn Pholpaka, a 9-year-old en route to primary school.

The third-grader was an unintended casualty of Bangkok’s technical school wars, a tradition of beatings, stabbings and occasionally killings between feuding vocational academies.

For decades, wayward trade students have waged tit-for-tat street fights against rival schools. But this new low — the death of a 9-year-old bystander — has educators and politicians struggling to reign in the near-daily attacks.

More than 1,000 student fights were reported in the first half of 2009, according to police, and 639 incidents were logged throughout 2008. Even Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has condemned the feuding as a national menace, ordering officials to quell the violence.

“When I saw that boy get hit, oh, it broke my heart,” said Somyot Paditchai, a 45-year old motorbike taxi driver who witnessed the shooting. The stick-wielding pack of teenagers ran screaming past his taxi stand, he said.

“But if no one had died, I wouldn’t think much of it. This is normal. I’ve seen schoolboys fighting with knives, wooden stakes, everything. It’s never going to stop.”

Thailand’s 400-plus vocational schools provide skilled laborers to the country’s vast industrial sector, accounting for 45 percent of GDP.

Vocational students are often Thai teenagers without the money, connections or high marks needed for general college. With a trade school diploma, young men can land decent-paying jobs, namely in a growing automotive sector that employs 450,000 Thais.

But almost every trade school has its institutional rival. As with any tribal feud, proximity breeds enmity. Scuffles break out when students of closely neighboring schools cross paths at bus stops or shopping hang-outs.

Enemies are easily spotted by their institution’s crest, engraved into belt buckles or embroidered on neckties.

“In ones and twos, they walk around looking like scared kids. Once they form a crew, they walk around like this,” said Somyot, jutting out his chest and screwing his face into a goofy scowl. “They’re always trying to outdo each other. If you hurt or kill someone, you’re a hero.”

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.