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Watching Newin from ringside

Controversial punishment of wayward teens divides Thai public

We have a choice between brawl-loving teenagers and Newin Chidchob's controversial - some might say sadistic - measure to deal with the troubled youngsters. Support either side and we could end up being accused of ignoring a social ill or something even worse. It's not easy, and the deeply divided public opinion over what happened in Buri Ram during the Songkran festival has confirmed that.

The Buriram United stadium played host to a Songkran music event. As the football club's owner, Newin considered himself the ultimate guardian of the event, and while launching the festival he warned that security guards would grab any trouble-makers and put them in a boxing ring where professional boxers waited.

Five brawling teenagers were dumped in the ring and quickly became virtual punching bags. Video clips were released and the rest is history. Some applauded Newin's "innovative" approach while others branded him a sadist who took the law into his own hands. Commentators on the social media and on YouTube were sharply divided. Newin was either a hero or a villain. The bruised teens were either victims of an adult's twisted mind or cowardly bullies who hunted their prey in packs and got what they deserved.

Rights activists have stepped in and advised the humiliated teenagers to sue. The pro-Newin camp has hit back, calling for an end to such "pretentiousness". "We are a society so full of 'dramas'," a sports commentator quipped on the radio. "The kids were being hit by people who wore gloves and they weren't harmed anywhere near as much as their victims would have been." It was a sentiment echoed by many people tired of youngsters making trouble or actual victims of their aggression. One YouTube comment in support of Newin came from someone who said they had witnessed delinquents rampage through a public place with no regard for the safety of bystanders.

But why couldn't Newin have simply handed the teenagers over to police and let the law handle things? The compassion that fuels this question, asked by many, is understandable. It's one thing to watch footage of young boys armed with clubs or knives chasing after scared "enemies". It's another to witness a paling teenager on the verge of wetting his boxing shorts as he faces a professional boxer in the ring.

Newin also lectured the teen tearaways. Again, he was seen by some as an "old-fashioned" disciplinarian using drastic measures, albeit for the greater good, and by others as a maniac reaching far beyond his status. Whatever or whoever Newin is, brawls are unlikely to take place at future events to which his name it attached.

The pro-Newin camp might claim victory on this basis, since the other side based its argument on how bad it looks when kids start brawling. However, the anti-Newin camp can argue that, while they disapprove of the youngsters' violent behaviour, they dislike Newin's corrective methods even more. Newin's idea of "solutions" goes way overboard, the critics say. But has he at least given the teenagers involved pause to consider questions of courage versus cowardice, the virtue of being able to stand alone versus the unmanly method of ganging up against someone?

So, after abortion, prostitution, needles-for-drug-addicts, Thaksin Shinawatra et al, here's another controversy for society to ponder. No one got killed or seriously injured during the brawls or the infamous "boxing matches" at the Buri Ram stadium, so we could call it a draw between the pro- and anti-Newin camps. This is, after all, an issue in which right and wrong overlap and where judgement is heavily influenced by personal experience.


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