The air was filled with excitement and hope as I stood in front of the Education Ministry compound in Bangkok among hundreds of schoolchildren, some as young as 10 and most in school uniforms. They were busy helping one another tie white ribbons in their hair and around their wrists, putting on face masks to both guard their identities and protect themselves against the novel coronavirus, and placing duct tape over the names embroidered on their uniforms. Once they were all ready to go, they lined up on the street and raised their arms in “Hunger Games”-style three-finger salutes.
These children, the new masked faces of political dissent in Thailand, satirically call themselves the “Bad Students” because they refuse to be submissive in the face of what they consider to be arbitrary hierarchy and classroom abuses by teachers and school administrators.
The Bad Students are calling for an end to all forms of harassment against students demanding democracy, revocation of obsolete and abusive school regulations, and educational reforms with students’ full participation.
The students told me they see school as the first dictatorship in their lives, with its top-down structure and wholly unaccountable operations. The authoritarian culture of teachers and school administrators, the archaic and petty rules that control everything from clothes to hair length, the discrimination against LGBTQ students, the uninspired rote learning methods — all of these things are problems. The Bad Students believe their campaign for school reform is part of the wider political campaign to end authoritarian rule in Thailand.
It is now a familiar scene at every democracy rally across the country to see children from middle school and high school among the participants, even giving speeches onstage. They have also held their own rallies on school grounds and occasionally taken to the street, including at the largest democracy rally to date, on Aug. 16 at the Democracy Monument in central Bangkok. On that day, tens of thousands of peaceful protesters called for the dissolution of parliament, drafting of a new constitution, ensuring respect for freedom of expression and other human rights, and perhaps most controversial of all, for reform of the monarchy to curb King Vajiralongkorn’s broad powers.
While the Bad Students firmly press both the schools and government to respond to their demands, the mood at their rallies is joyful. The day I was there, the children sang protest songs adapted from popular Japanese cartoons such as “Hamtaro,” and danced together in improvised parodies of school sport events, with themes and lyrics that mock government officials and encourage other children to come out and join them.
These children have shown great creativity and even greater courage. Their activities run on a shoestring, a sort of financing as you go. But when they ask for support on social media, donations arrive in a flash from everywhere. As the protests have continued, I have seen more and more adults — activists, parents and relatives, and even older people — placing themselves in a protective fashion between the children and police lines. Some adults have volunteered to be security guards and medics. Others bring food, drinks, megaphones and even mobile toilets to support the children and their protests.
What is critical is that these adults are supporting and backing the children, but not trying to dominate the stage or interfere in their messages. “These children are the future of Thailand,” one adult supporter told me. “This is their fight, and we will keep them safe and well.”
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government publicly stated that every school has been instructed to allow students to express their political views. But in reality, the police, military, educational personnel and local government officials harass and intimidate the student activists. Hundreds of such cases have been reported to the Education Ministry over the past months. Outspoken students face disciplinary actions and threats of expulsion.
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, which provides legal assistance to the Bad Students, reported that police officers have gone into schools to intimidate students by taking photos and questioning children who participated in rallies or Bad Students campaigns. Officials have also pressured students’ families. School administrators have punished students for wearing white ribbons on campus or showing the ubiquitous three-finger salutes during the national anthem. One high school student in Ratchaburi province was even charged with illegal assembly, which carries a maximum two-year prison term.
The voices of Thailand’s children who are demanding democratic reform are increasingly reverberating around the world. Thai authorities should ensure that the rights of these protesting students are protected and that they are able to voice their opinions peacefully without fear or intimidation. And they should listen to the children.
Sunai Phasuk is the senior Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch.