Nalinrat Tuthubthim, who has been campaigning against sexual abuse in schools, takes part in the Bad Student rally in Bangkok on Nov. 21. (Photo: AFP)
As young people were milling around her at a spirited youth-led mass rally in central Bangkok, a young woman dressed in a high school uniform sat stiffly on a chair, her mouth sealed shut with duct tape. She was engaged in a poignant one-person protest.
With her large spectacles and her hair pulled into a ponytail, 20-year-old Nalinrat Tuthubthim looked demure as she was holding a white A4-size piece of paper with words written on it in Thai. “A teacher sexually abused me,” the words read. “Schools aren’t safe places.”
Nalinrat was one of thousands of people, including hundreds of high school students, who had gathered for the Nov. 21 protest organized by a grassroots student group that calls itself Bad Students and has been campaigning for a thorough reform of the Thai educational and political systems, which they see as hidebound, out of touch and oppressive.
Several protesters were dressed in Tyrannosaurus Rex costumes in a dig at the country’s old-fashioned authorities, whom the youngsters view as political dinosaurs. Participants were invited to pelt these “dinosaurs” with inflated beach balls painted to look like meteorites.
“If parliament cast in the role of the dinosaur rejects and refuses changes, students like us will be the meteorite that collides with the backwardness of senior figures in society,” the group said on its Facebook page. “Students will talk about all the things the dinosaurs don’t want to hear!”
The street party-style political event was rich in symbolism, yet it was the young woman sitting in silence with her simple sign that highlighted the scourge of sexual harassment in Thai schools who appears to have especially rubbed some conservative Thais the wrong way.
Pareena Kraikupt, a 44-year-old female politician who is a notorious right-wing firebrand and a member of the ruling military-allied Palang Pracharat Party, has threatened to lodge a police complaint against Nalinrat, a social media influencer, for dressing up as a high schooler despite having already graduated from high school.
In turn, her male fellow MP Sira Janejaka accused the young protester of embarrassing Thailand and its school system. Sira also suggested that female students were inviting sexual harassment by dressing provocatively.
Many young Thais were quick to denounce the two lawmakers on social media for their assaults on Nalinrat and other victims of sexual abuse in schools.
“We live in a patriarchal society in which the poo yai [big people], mostly men, make the rules. There’s the cultural mindset of dek mun yua, or the kid seduced me, in which society blames the victim,” explained Voranai Vanijaka, a prominent social and political commentator, in an op-ed published on Nov. 24. “Nalinrat’s tragedy is a classic example,” he added.
Nalinrat, who has been campaigning against sexual abuse in schools, said in a Facebook post in September that she had been sexually abused by a teacher when she was a 16-year-old student and did not know better than to give in to the man’s wanton advances for fear of being shamed in public.
“Five years ago a teacher sexually assaulted me. He touched my breasts and my body. I asked him to lock the restroom door. It was stupid. There was also a security camera,” she wrote.
“I did what I did, acting like everything was normal because I was afraid others would know I was being sexually assaulted. I thought it was shameful. I thought society would condemn me for allowing a man to assault me.”
In July, Nalinrat, who says she has been suffering from severe mental health problems since the incident, filed a complaint with the school’s administrators. They brushed her off by saying that there was nothing that could be done about a few bad apples among teachers, she says.
“Many teachers touch the kids out of affection,” Nalinrat was also reportedly told. “If you studied psychology, you would know it is to make the kids feel good.”
Shortly thereafter, the administrators asked her to stop publicizing her case on social media so as not to make the school “look bad.”
“Thai schools are places that create and normalize an authoritarian system and sexual harassment,” she told a Thai newspaper in a recent interview. “The sexual harassment is just the tip of the iceberg; there are many other problems beneath it.”
Nalinrat is hardly alone in having suffered sexual abuse in her school. Numerous other young women have been taking to social media to speak about similar experiences.
In a recent case that caused nationwide outrage, five teachers and two male students were accused of gang-raping two students, aged 14 and 16, repeatedly for a year at a school in a northeastern province. The two teenage girls have been left traumatized.
This year alone there have been several other alleged cases of teachers at primary and secondary schools molesting students and even raping them. “School rapes in Thailand happen so frequently that they no longer shock,” lamented Sanitsuda Ekachai, a columnist for the Bangkok Post.
Many incidents may well go unreported as victims will not speak publicly of the abuse they have suffered for fear of being shamed or even stigmatized.
Commentators like Voranai fault an entrenched culture of impunity that protects people with power in a deeply unequal and hierarchical society with feudalistic underpinnings. Such wanton impunity helps perpetuate a climate of sexual abuse and exploitation in schools, they argue.
“In a culture that views women and minors as inferior [and] in a society that expects complete submission and obedience, those in power can do no wrong. There are no checks and balances on those in power,” Voranai says.