24 June 2010

Training for troubled teens: A TV series on young offenders in Thailand

"After a Rainstorm", Phol is being chased by members of a rival school.© Photo courtesy of Dhamma Nawattakam Ltd.

Story by Sirinya Wattanasukchai

BANGKOK - Carrying a rucksack, Sopon Poonkhum - in casual outfit - is reluctant to walk down the path in the rising afternoon temperature toward the office building of Ban Kanchanaphisek Juvenile Training Centre. By his side is the counsellor whom he will have to spend many months with from now here at the training centre.
Luckily, Sopon doesn't really have to spend the next several months here like the other dozens of boys who are serving detention time. He's spending the day with a TV crew at this suburban training centre and playing the role of a young offender who is serving time for the crime he committed five years ago.

While helping the TV crew to find extras, *Pong is watching his life being portrayed by Sopon through the lens, wishing that this story be a good life lesson to be learned without being practised.

Pong and Sopon are part of the Before 18 project, a project coordinated by Unicef, the Ministry of Justice's Department of Juvenile Observation and Protection, together with the Thai Public Broadcasting Service.

Before 18 is a six-episode, 30-minute television series that focuses on young offenders and is scheduled to premiere every Saturday at 6:30pm on Thai TV beginning July 3. The prime-time series aims to both create empathy among the Thai public for the problems faced by young offenders and to also promote a better understanding of the root causes to their criminal behaviour.

Each episode features different root causes that are not necessarily all poverty-based as understood by most people. Many troubled children come from poor families while others come from well-to-do families, and some from overprotective clans. But one thing in common shared among these youths is the lack of time-sharing with their parents. Crime committed is believed to be influenced by life experiences.

"No life deserves to be lost," says Ticha Na Nakorn, supervisor of Ban Kanchanaphisek Juvenile Training Centre, who strongly believes in soul-fixing rather than eye-for-an-eye punishment. And the lesson is meant to be learned by everyone.

To make the series as real as possible, all the characters are non-professionals and the extras are from the community. After the show has been broadcasted on television the series will then be made into DVDs and distributed to various youth training centres nationwide as an educational tool. The well-portrayed stories can be used as a case study for new officers to learn from real experiences; a mirror to reflect the mistakes of parents in families; a lesson for teenagers to learn and become aware of before acting out such dreaded acts.

The life quality and mindset of a person is the result of how his/her family, surrounding people and society treat him/her, says Karn Sermchaiwong, Unicef's Child Protection officer and project coordinator. Rather than only judging the young offenders for the actual crimes committed found in most typical series on this subject, the new series traces back to the starting point of the lives of six youths before they took a misstep that ultimately landed them here to the training centre, and shows how the offenders have learned and become better through the process of the training centre.

The fourth episode, Kwarm Wang Plao Khong Waela (The Emptiness of Time), is also based on Kao Ti Phlad (The Missing Step) by Pong. Pong grew up in a farming community in Nonthaburi province where his father has a small business and his mother runs a small grocery shop at home. He was used to his father's constant absence on "business" and nightly trips to the gambling den with his mother. Pong only later found out that his father was actually a drug dealer and the grocery shop also served as a pick-up spot for clients.

"It was completely normal," says 22-year-old Pong, although deep down inside he knew there was something intrinsically wrong about it. He recalled in his younger days watching dozens of adults in the neighbourhood dropping by to pick up small packets of amphetamines, or sometimes even watching them use the drugs in his own house.

"People don't realise how much the scene of a husband beating his wife can affect a child later in life," says Kattiya Ratanadilok, head of the Research and Development Department of Juvenile Observation and Protection, Ministry of Justice, adding that domestic violence can certainly cause brutality in children.

Pong's life fell apart one peaceful summer night when he was 13 as a dozen or so police officers stormed into his house with guns pointing at his father, handcuffed his mother and strip-searched him. A gun and some 200 pills were found by the police officers, and both his father and mother were later sentenced to five- and four-year sentences respectively.

Without a family, Pong was easily drawn into the forbidden and dangerous world of drugs and guns - a world he thought he had managed to escape. And before he knew it, he was spending his teenage life following in his father's footsteps. As a 16-year-old, dropping out of school was worth trading for the reputation of being a powerful drug dealer and gang leader.

But the power came to an end at a karaoke bar when he shot a member of a rival gang and wasn't able to escape like he had many times before. "I shot him in 2004 or 2005 ... quite some years ago," Pong says as he tries to put his life back into sequence. He seems healthy but he can't remember certain dates or recall things in great detail, as years of alcohol and drug use have taken a toll on his brain.

The nine bullets did not only take away the victim's life but also Pong's freedom. After the murder in 2005, Pong was convicted of murder three years later and has been at the training centre since.

After studying the character, producer-director Watanachon Kongthon found that these youths weren't born or bred to be criminals, but were distracted for a moment. After having shot another student, Phol, in the last episode titled Fah Lung Fon (After the Rainstorm), realised there was no such thing as dignity in killing someone. He was later convicted of murder, served time, released, and is now living a clean life working as an engineer and living with his mother.

The series aims at educating the general public so they give these youths another chance in society, says Kattiya, as they are usually branded as criminals even after serving time. They have another 40 years to either help build or destroy society, "and there's a way to bring them back to society. It's up to [society] on whether to give, or deprive them of the chance to do it."

If the series is successful, it will help change the perception of countless people in society. And that means some 40,000 to 50,000 cases recorded by the department between 2006 and 2008 and thousands more before and afterwards to be able to return to the society as normal people.

And Pong will be able to return to the society without doubt next year. After serving 26 months at two training centres for the crime he regrets, Pong has learned his lesson and hopes to be released in the next 10 months. He plans to finish a bachelor's degree, run a small business, and live a clean life with his parents, who have now been released and have also become clean.

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