Thailand grapples with killer student gangs

LOPBURI, Thailand - Sweat dripping from their foreheads as they complete a set of press-ups, students at a Thai army boot camp are momentary allies, but a spate of gang shootings suggests it is an uneasy peace.

Deadly rivalries between student gangs have seen several teenagers gunned down in Bangkok since the start of the school year in May, leaving the kingdom's authorities scrambling for answers to a decades-old violent tradition.

The 150 students doing fitness drills at the army camp north of the capital come from vocational colleges - schools notorious for incubating ruthless gangs who fight for the perceived pride of their institution.

"I stabbed a student in the head," says Pond, a pimply 18-year-old who escaped prosecution for the assault but was fined a few dollars for carrying a knife.

"Sometimes I feel bad about it, but it's what happens. We do it because it's a legend, passed down from the seniors in our school. We do it for pride."

The colleges prepare teenagers for a life of manual work, rather than going on to university, and the students are often viewed as low status by a society with a keen sense of hierarchy.

An epidemic of violence strikes at the start of every new school year, leaving ordinary Thais on guard for the appearance of students in public spaces, where disputes can lead to tragedy.

A bystander died after she was hit by a stray bullet in June as a group of students opened fire on a Bangkok bus in an attack that killed a rival gang member.

Guns, machetes and even improvised grenades were among an arsenal seized in a subsequent police crackdown, but the death toll has risen unabated with at least three more students killed and several others wounded since.

Bangkok police recorded more than 1,000 cases of students fighting between January and July this year, and the nationwide tally is likely to be much higher.

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