Fellow Since 2008
Chiangmai Youth Community (Project to Reduce High-Risk Behavior - from the Thai name) among Inner City Chiang Mai Youth
This description of Laddawan Chaininpun's work was prepared when Laddawan Chaininpun was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.
Laddawan Chaininpun is transforming youth gangs into structured and empowered support groups to address the broader needs of youth in northern Thailand, and thus reducing socially destructive behavior, violence, and drug use, and turning once troubled youth into responsible citizens.
The New Idea
Through her Chiangmai Youth Community Center (CYC), Laddawan is redefining the perception and function of gangs in Thailand’s north and transforming them from incubators of violent crime into support groups for the region’s high population of troubled youth. Laddawan’s approach is the first in Thailand to recognize that young people often join gangs to achieve a sense of belonging, and find in them a supportive community they frequently lack at home. As such, the current government push to eradicate gangs altogether leaves young members without a much needed support network. Having spent a decade getting to know gang youth, she has realized that the best solution is one that will leverage the potential of these existing social networks to influence youth to lead more responsible lives. Building on, rather than breaking down, the strength of existing gang networks, Laddawan brings rival groups together to solve conflicts peacefully and establish a more positive rapport, with a focus on building the leadership capacity of a core group of gang leaders. Laddawan’s CYC enlists gangs to become part of the solution, rather than driving the problem. In the last seven years, more than 4,000 gang youth in northern Thailand have sworn off drug use and violence and are making positive contributions to society. Laddawan’s CYC is building a scalable model and working to replicate it to other provinces in Thailand. In addition to improving relations between youth, Laddawan’s CYC is building partnerships with police, municipal authorities, teachers, psychiatrists, social workers, and parents, serving to break down the social stigma that often sends gang youth spiraling into further violence and antagonism towards society. By demonstrating that gangs can actually serve to rehabilitate youth behavior and by reaching out to police and other authorities, government and citizen-sector institutions and the media, she has achieved broad acceptance and support for her work. CYC also serves to change the values of the teens, to improve their self-image, and to help them realize they can make a positive impact on society.
As the only major city in Thailand’s north, Chiang Mai attracts a large number of poor youth looking for work or study. With no family, and often after escaping broken homes, these youth lack a network to turn to for support. In the initial stage of isolation, gangs often offer exactly what they seek.Despite a metropolitan population of just over 1 million, there are estimated to be more than fifty gangs in Chiang Mai, with an additional twenty in the “twin city” of Lamphun. This has created an estimated gang youth population of over 5,000; however, statistics are hard to come by, and many suspect this number is low. While the gang problem appears to be more concentrated in Chiang Mai, youth gangs are a nationwide problem, with high numbers in the urban center of Bangkok as well as Phuket and other provinces.Chiang Mai’s location—adjacent to the opium-producing Golden Triangle border region, with transit connections to Bangkok—makes the city a prime crossroads of the region’s drug trade. Drugs are traded on the city’s streets, and with a high population of gang youth, a large number of teenagers are at-risk of addiction or involvement in the illegal drug trade: A problem which is increasingly endemic nationwide.Gang violence is often manifested through “turf wars” that occur across the city and occasionally over affect the general population. While Thai gang violence does not typically involve guns to the degree seen in American cities, violence has progressed from hand combat to the use of rock-throwing, knives, and other weapons, indicating the potential towards violent crime. The police’s solution has been to arrest the teens and jail gang leaders in an attempt to dissolve the gangs—at times even resorting to brutality and, on occasion, unexplained disappearances. However, with a gang population in the thousands, such efforts are proving ineffective. In an interview with the Bangkok Post, Chiang Mai’s deputy police commander stated, “The local police alone cannot solve the problems of gangs in Chiang Mai.” In addition to their constant crack-downs, the local police have used the media to demonize gang youth as violent criminals; sensationalizing brawls as widespread acts of violence against innocent citizens. Laddawan cites incidents in which the local police have helped orchestrate brawls: Rounding up and arming rival groups, while tipping off the media to document the ensuing violence for the local newspapers. The result has been a storm of public outrage against the gangs. Laddawan’s youth population has even faced difficulties carrying out community service activities in the city, as large groups of gang members—even when collecting garbage on the streets—were considered a threat. Labeled as hoodlums and wrongdoers, and denied social services, gang members are more likely to act out against a society that has condemned them—often fulfilling the negative stereotypes that have defined them. Laddawan has fought for years against this stigma. When she began her work, she reached out to police, families, and teachers, but found that most were not sympathetic or supportive to the cause of reforming gangs. Laddawan continues to push for the formal registration of youth gangs—feeling that this would help to make their actions more transparent. However, many police and local authorities still believe allowing youth groups to register as formal organizations would be akin to legalizing crime.
Laddawan was forced to confront Chiang Mai’s gang problems personally when her grandson joined the city’s largest and most infamous gang, known as the Na Dara (NDR) gang. She quickly realized she could not force him to leave it, as it provided a support system he needed. Thus, she sought to gain access to the inner workings of the gang to find out exactly what it provided, who its members were, what activities they were involved with, and how its leadership was structured. What she learned was that despite all public opinion to the contrary, these youth were not inherently bad; instead, faced with limited choices, they were making decisions that led them down a negative path. Laddawan discovered these youth needed to be shown another path—one that guided them towards making positive contributions to the society they had rejected. And she saw that with the status bestowed by her fifty-plus years of age and her role as a surrogate grandmother (“Yai Elle” as she is affectionately known) to the gang members, she was in a strategic position to change their behavior for the better.She began working with the gang’s members on an individual voluntary basis, counseling them on their personal and family issues and helping to negotiate in their disputes with the police. As she developed more experience and gained greater trust, she moved on to counseling larger groups of troubled youth, and quickly took on an ad hoc role as mediator between the gang and the police. When a member of the gang was arrested, the police called Yai Elle to intervene. What would have previously been an arrest and imprisonment would now be a lesson learned. Laddawan’s work has gradually gained the trust of the local police, who understand how her work can benefit the city—and ease their workload. Laddawan recognized that the existing structure of the gang created an ideal organization for supporting youth during their most crucial developmental years, shaping the adults that these teens would become. She realized that all of Chiang Mai’s gangs were, in effect, ready-made youth organizations with existing leadership structures in place; and while these channels were historically used to spread negativity and instigate crime, they could serve a more positive function. Working to develop a leadership structure and a formalized system, she began by instituting an absolute no-drug rule in her grandson’s NDR gang, whereby any instance of drug abuse was grounds for immediate expulsion, subject to the judgment of the group’s core leaders. The new rule spread naturally through the group’s existing channels of communication, leading the group to eventually adopt a new name: No Drugs Rulers. Seeing the success of her work with the NDR group, Laddawan founded Chiang Mai CYC in 2001 to build an organized structure and formalize a process by which the CYC would develop relationships to reduce violent behavior among inner-city Chiang Mai youth, eliminate the group values that lead to crime and drug abuse, and to build the capacity of core leaders to spread her idea to other gangs throughout the city. What began with individual relationships between youth in the NDR gang eventually expanded to other groups. By the end of 2001, CYC was working with eight gangs in the city. To date, she and her youth core group leaders work with approximately thirty groups and have over the past seven years, reached over 4,000 at-risk youth in the Chiang Mai metropolitan area. These groups include both male and female gangs, as well as youth representing Chiang Mai’s diverse faiths, including Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims.With a group of 200 youth, the CYC created a member constitution with eight core principles, agreed and decided upon by the members. Chief amongst the laws is the group’s original no-drugs rule. This has added to her respect by the local police, who now see her as an inside figure working to counter Chiang Mai’s growing youth drug trade. Other rules include no weapons, no fighting, no disturbing the public peace, sticking together and—key to the CYC experience—regular attendance at group meetings. The group meetings are meant to teach youth to understand the dangers of drugs and the laws and penalties for transgression. Youth also learn how to protect themselves from HIV and AIDS and about various formal and non-formal education options available in Chiang Mai. The group’s members tour drug rehabilitation centers, orphanages, and the Juvenile Justice Center to gain experience and insights into the living conditions of vulnerable youth in their community. These and other community service activities teach them how to become responsible citizens who can contribute to society. The CYC brings together former rival gangs in organized competitive sporting events in a spirit of goodwill and camaraderie, which serves to raise the profile of the once-villainized gangs in the public eye through more positive coverage in local and even national media.Central to the CYC’s strategy to instill a lasting change in current patterns is to develop leaders who will serve as role models for youth—influencing them to stay away from drugs, violence, and negative behavior—and to carry on the activities and expand the CYC. The CYC holds regular leadership camps—bringing in nurses, psychiatrists, social workers, and even police—to train youth in leadership skills, mediation, and peaceful conflict resolution. In addition to the positive media attention her efforts have received—evidence of her work’s impact on changing society’s attitudes towards gangs—her work is also generating the buy-in of government and citizen organizations, indicating the potential for national-level impact. In recent months, the CYC has linked with four provinces, including the southern province of Phuket, in an effort to document and share CYC best practices with similar groups working in their respective provinces. At present, the CYC receives funding support from the Thai government’s Office of the Narcotics Control Board, on which a CYC youth ambassador has been elected to serve, as well as from independent government bodies such as the Thai Health Promotion Foundation and the Thai Research Institute, who reached out to the CYC when they recently set out to collect the nation’s first extensive research on gang youth. Laddawan has been recognized by the Human Rights Commission for her achievements in securing youth rights.
Laddawan was born in 1945 in Chiang Mai, historically the center for Christian missionary work in the region. As a child, Laddawan saw the work of the missionaries in building schools, hospitals, and conducting other social work activities, but also witnessed how the Christians were persecuted by the Chiang Mai government and minor royalty. Her family went against the prevailing social grain to assist the missionaries in their work, despite threats on their lives, recognizing the positive social impact they made. This experience fostered a spirit of activism that stays with Laddawan today.Laddawan was educated in a Christian school built by missionaries and was involved in many church activities. Through her church, she served as youth community service leader—an experience which showed her the powerful role youth can play in their communities. Laddawan’s commitment to working with youth led her to enroll in a private teachers’ college in Chiang Mai, where she earned a degree to teach Thai and English languages. She has devoted her forty-year career to guiding youth development, teaching in and out of the Thai primary school system. A recognized leader, she was promoted to head of the Thai language department at her school, while also serving as chairman of the school’s faculty council. She cites her teaching career as building strong personal character that makes it easier to understand children, and gives her the wisdom to guide their development. When her grandson became involved in one of Chiang Mai’s notorious youth gangs, she recognized that her experience could be applied to help reform the pattern of the gang—work she continues today.A recognized youth leader and social entrepreneur, Laddawan has earned the respect of parents, police, teachers, and citizen sector and government leaders for her leadership in confronting one of the nation’s most controversial youth issues. She has also been recognized by the Human Rights Commission for her achievements in securing youth rights. Laddawan has three children and thousands of surrogate “grandchildren” across northern Thailand.