A young pro-democracy protester rests on large inflatable ducks during an anti-government rally at Lat Phrao intersection in Bangkok on Dec. 2. (Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP)
A threat by Thailand’s education minister to take legal action against high school students who voice complaints about their schools and teachers has been panned as a heavy-handed attempt to silence dissenting students in a politically divided nation.
Nataphol Teepsuwan issued his statement after the launch of a new website by student activists who have been engaged in a months-long campaign to achieve wide-ranging education reforms.
Students can leave comments about their experiences in school on the online platform launched on Dec. 1.
“[The website] can cause problems in the future,” Nataphol said on a television show on Dec. 2, adding that content on the site can affect teachers and “may infringe on their rights” because complaints may violate privacy laws.
“I’ve asked the legal department to look into ways to close down the website,” he said. “I want them to think of legal consequences.”
The minister’s threat against outspoken students also violates young people’s freedom of speech and conscience, right advocates say.
“In Thailand, exposing abusive teachers is regarded as a worse crime than abusing students. Shame on education minister Nataphol Teepsuwan for doing nothing to stop the abuse of Thailand’s new generation,” Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a prominent British commentator on Thai affairs, noted in a social media post.
The website also serves as part of a youth-led campaign to allow students to decide whether they want to wear school uniforms or casual clothes to school.
The issue of compulsory uniforms at government-run schools has been at the forefront of a student-led reform movement, which seeks to do away with several obligatory practices that include restricted hairstyles.
In recent months, numerous female students have staged protests on campuses and streets against compulsory hairstyles that require them to keep their hair short.
The student activists say such rules impinge on their freedoms and can violate their personhood by stifling their individuality.
Their demands for freedom of choice in such matters have met with a backlash from the authorities, teachers and many conservative Thais, who see discipline in schools as key to social cohesion.
However, student activists counter that the regimented nature of education in Thailand serves to bolster an autocratic regime that draws its inspiration from the repressive traditions of the Thai military, which remains in charge through a proxy government headed by former army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha.
“We have to have short hair, we have to wear uniforms and we have to stand at attention every day,” an 18-year-old high school student, who identified herself as Nui and attends a well-known government-run school in Bangkok, told UCA News.
“It feels like the idea is not to help us become educated but to get us trained in how to be obedient.”
Prayut has spoken out against any changes in school attire, insisting that students are better off wearing their uniforms.
“Students can be easily noticed if they are in their uniforms and fall into danger,” the Thai prime minister said on Dec. 1. “Uniforms also cost less money than casual outfits.”
Shortly after seizing power in a military coup in 2014, Prayut, who was then head of a repressive junta, issued his “12 National Values,” which all high school students are required to memorize and recite regularly.
The rules instruct students to “maintain discipline,” “abide by the royal teachings” and “think of the greater good,” among other precepts.
Yet more and more Thai students appear to be chafing under such parochial expectations. “It’s all part of the brainwashing that goes on in Thai schools,” Nui said.