Thai students turn agitators for educational reform

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Pro-democracy students raise a three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance, during a protest rally in front of Education Ministry in Bangkok, Thailand Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Again on this Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, students will gather to protest outside the Education Ministry demanding reform to what they say is an oppressive and ineffective school system. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

BANGKOK – She‘s 15, writes love stories and likes indie music and anime cartoons. So far so normal. But two weeks ago Benjamaporn Nivas upended traditional notions of Thai schoolkids’ behavior by leading hundreds of youngsters in a protest outside the Education Ministry in Bangkok.

On Saturday she and her friends plan to do it again, venting their rage in an attempt to shake up the Thai education order, which they say is oppressive, ineffective and in dire need of reform.

Benjamaporn, or Ploy as she’s known, and her friends are members of a new high school student activist group they've dubbed the “Bad Students” and they are looking to build on the momentum from their last protest.

So far the group has been short on practical recommendations, but they are expected to announce more details of the changes they are seeking at Saturday’s rally. They have been clear, however, that they want Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan to resign.

The Bad Students have grabbed attention nationwide, in part because their movement was born at a time of wider anti-government protests led predominantly by university students. The youngsters have adopting the same symbols and protest tactics, putting added strain on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's administration.

The Bad Students arrived with a bang last month. The scenes at the Education Ministry amazed the Thai public: around 400 high school students, in uniform, thronging the building, chanting, cheering and yelling for Nataphol to resign.

Ploy was at the forefront.

She gave an speech demanding change to the education system and what she said were its “rubbish rules,” its rigid discipline and its lack of equality.

“If I could do it all over again, I would, but maybe I would prepare my speech a little better and tell myself to calm down more,” she said, laughing. “That day I was so nervous. My hands and legs were all shaking.”

Most remarkable was the treatment of Nataphol, the education minister. He came to talk to them. They ordered him to the back because he was late, just like in school.

Such brazen disrespect for an authority figure contradicted much of what Thai schoolkids are taught to be.

Nataphol actually sat down and listened patiently to those there, writing down their complaints and responding, while sweating heavily in the afternoon sun.

“I’m happy that they dare to speak out and that they are interested in politics at this age, as long as their ideas are beneficial to the country," Nataphol told those gathered. "They are the future and my future depends on them.”

Ploy was unimpressed.

“Adults working at the Ministry of Education are just waiting for their retirement,” she said. “When the ministry is not effective, it affects the schools. And within the schools we face authoritarianism, with teachers ruling the students, for instance, the haircut rules. And we also have problems with the curriculum.”

The “haircut rules” refers to standardized hairstyles students were required to have, something the ministry already agreed to liberalize.

Nataphol appears to be taking the protests in stride.

“From what I heard from the students, they are worried about their own and their friends’ future, they are worried the teachers’ work load, about the inequality of the education and about the ability to compete, which are great topics similar to our reform plans,” he wrote on his Facebook page last week. "I give my support to all.”

The ministry has issued a statement saying schools must respect their students' freedom of speech, allowing political protests as long as they are not disruptive.

Political scientist Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee said that deep-seated anger and frustration lie behind the protests.

"They call themselves, the movement, the Bad Students. This is kind of sarcastic towards what the grown-ups think is a good education system but actually the good education in the eyes of the grown-ups is not good for the students,” said Siripan, a professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “The education system in Thailand does not allow them to think, to create or to initiate anything.”

Ploy believes there is real hope that Thai pupil power can bring change.

“I feel like I don’t want to pass on this situation to other generations. I want this to end in my generation. And it is also for my own future,” she said.