CHIANG MAI, Thailand - She's
affectionately known as Yai Elle or Yai Aew - or
Grandmother Aew - among this city's rough and
tumble, narcotics-peddling youth gangs. For more
than a decade, Laddawan Chaininpun, 62, has worked
to help rehabilitate Chiang Mai's gangs and in the
process has won many of their trust.
got involved with the gangs initially because her
nephew had joined one of Chiang Mai's most vicious
gangs: the Samurais. They earned that nickname
because they were often seen
wielding long swords while
riding motorcycles at high speed through the city
Yai Aew estimates that that
there are about 50 youth gangs in Chiang Mai,
varying in size from a handful to several hundred.
The total number of members would be around 3,500,
or perhaps even more, she says. Of those, 26 gangs
with a total membership of about 1,500 are taking
part in her programs, which lately have won the
support of the Swedish section of the teetotaler
nongovernmental organization, the International
Organization of Good Templars.
that I cannot change their behavior completely,"
Yai Aew says. "But by bringing the different gangs
together, they can become friends and no one would
want to fight someone who is a friend, would he?
Then, there'll be less violence and even ordinary
people will feel safer in the city."
Violence and turf wars between rival gangs
have been a social scourge in Chiang Mai for
decades, running alongside a city plagued by
prostitution, HIV/AIDS and drugs. Gang members are
often both distributors and users. Both boys and
girls, some barely in their teens, sell sexual
services for as little as 300 baht (US$8.50) to
buy drugs, alcohol and glue.
operate in different parts of the city, and it is
when their interests clash that fights often break
out. The Samurai gang, which now has about 300
members aged between 13 and 20, was formed in
1996, and its actual name is Na Dara, which means
"in front of Dara." The founders of the gang used
to meet at a food stall in front of Dara Vidhyalai
School near Chiang Mai's central bus station.
Another prominent gang is called Ya Kha,
named after a thatched-roof motorcycle repair
shed, while the Set Den got their name because
they were "left over", or social outcasts. Among
those formed more recently, the Bin Laden gang
gained notoriety a few years ago when it was
actually involved in the murder of members of
rival gangs. The name Bin Laden was taken to evoke
an image of violence and daring attacks.
In addition, Yai Aew says there are four
all-girl gangs, of which the Vampires count around
180 members. "They like to sleep with as many boys
as they can, and I can't prevent them from doing
that, but, at the very least, and I can teach them
about safe sex," says Yai Aew, who distributes
condoms to the youngsters.
brothers and sisters It is difficult to say
why young people join the gangs. Pu, an
18-year-old boy from Mae Taeng north of the city,
hangs out at night around Tha Phae gate in
downtown Chiang Mai, and simply says that "it's
fun, I get many friends here". Daeng, a
16-year-old mixed French-Thai boy from San
Kamphaeng - more famous among foreigners for its
local silk and handicraft industry - says he has
nothing else to do at night.
member of a gang gives him, and presumably also
Pu, a sense of belonging. Various gangs may clash,
but there is a strong feeling of brotherhood - or,
as in the case of the Vampires, sisterhood - among
the members of the same group.
It is also
no coincidence that Chiang Mai has a long history
of youth gangs and juvenile delinquency. It is a
frontier town that always has had a large
transient population as many young people have
migrated to or through Chiang Mai from the
surrounding countryside and neighboring Myanmar,
Laos and China. There is also a large hill-tribe
population in the area, people who are still
basically stateless. And Chiang Mai is close to
the Golden Triangle, one of the world's oldest and
biggest drug-producing areas.
Colonel Anu Nuernhad, an officer at Mae Rim police
station just north of the city and a renowned
local historian, recalls gang-fights as early as
in the 1950s. In one of his 17 books about Chiang
Mai history, Anu describes a melee in March 1958,
involving a youth gang called Sri Ping - named
after a cinema where they used to meet - and
rivals from the outlying district of Sarapee.
They carried guns and came on bicycles.
The smoking of opium was common in those days and
in around 1963-64, the derivative heroin began to
be produced in the Golden Triangle. The Sri Ping
and others were soon selling it in the streets of
In many ways Chiang Mai's
street gangs are on the lowest level in the drug
hierarchy that begins with the warlords in the
Golden Triangle. And today it is yaa baa,
or methamphetamines, rather than heroin that is
the drug of choice for the city's juvenile
delinquents. Yaa baa now sells in the
streets of Chiang Mai for 200-250 baht a pill, of
which very little is actual profit for the young
And as street dealers they are
also the most vulnerable in the distribution
chain. During the "war on drugs", which was
launched in 2003 during the former Thai government
of Thaksin Shinawatra, several youth gang leaders
in Chiang Mai simply disappeared, never to be
heard of again.
For unlike the druglords
of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in Myanmar,
they do not enjoy the protection of the United
Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, nor are they
connected with seemingly untouchable "influential
persons" on both sides of the frontier. Some of
the youth gang members survive because they are
doubling as police informers, and therefore left
But their only real hope is Yai
Aew, and in many ways she has done wonders. Gang
members come to see her regularly and she has
organized football tournaments and weekend
leadership courses to get them off drugs, and to
minimize their usually violent behavior. "In the
beginning, the police were suspicious of me," she
told Asia Times Online in Chiang Mai. "They
thought I was some kind of 'Godmother' for the
gangs, not a volunteer social worker."
But, gradually, the police came to trust
her too, as they could see the benefits of her
work. The northern branch of the Office of
Narcotics Control Board, a Thai government agency,
even helped her finance her activities.
She is proud to point out that the Bin
Laden gang now has some of the best footballers in
the city. "And some of them have even joined the
army," she says. Her greatest achievement is
perhaps with the Samurai, or Na Dara, which is
often abbreviated "NDR". But in Yai Aew's parlance
NDR now stands for "No Drug Rulers" - and she
assured Asia Times Online that drug use today is
minimal among its members.
So can the
gangs be tamed, and drug pushers and notorious
killers, become footballers and soldiers? The
level of street violence in Chiang Mai has no
doubt subsided over the past few years in part due
to Yai Aew's matronly influence. There are perhaps
also somewhat fewer youngsters using drugs. But
their behavior is still risky, and it would need
many more dedicated volunteers like Yai Aew to
eliminate the problem for good.
Bertil Lintner is a former
correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review
and is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media
Services. Jantrapa Ganthawong in Chiang Mai
contributed to this story.