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Thailand's High School Civic Activism in a Time of Martial Law

Student activists at their first conference in March 2014. The 'XI' sign represents 11 proposals on education reform. Image by Nattanan Warintarawet.

Student activists at their first conference in March 2014. The ‘XI’ sign represents 11 proposals on education reform. Image by Nattanan Warintarawet.

These days, you don't see much idealism or activism among Thailand's youth—not since a coup last May led to the imposition of martial law. Now that the government has banned public gatherings of five people or more, it's become extremely difficult for young people to get involved in social movements. Criticizing army officials or trying to organize protest actions against the state, many fear, might even put activists in danger.  

But not everyone in Thailand remains silent. 17-year-old Nattanan Warintarawet, more commonly known as “Nice”, has dared to speak up publicly, challenging the new military-backed government. Warintarawet has criticized the authorities in multiple areas, including academic freedom and youth politics. She has also challenged the state on sociopolitical issues ranging from the justice system to participatory democracy to fundamental human rights.

As Secretary General of the Education for Liberation of Siam (ELS), she organized several activities that have already had a strong effect on Thai society—an impressive achievement in a nation under martial law. Last month, the ELS published an open letter addressed to the prime minister and coup leader, General Prayut Chan-o-cha. ELS seeks reforms for Thailand's ailing education system, advocating an end to the country's top-down approach, which currently excludes students from much of the bureaucracy's decisionmaking.

…the underlying philosophy of education that stresses authoritarianism and causes hindrance to the critical thinking of students still endures.

We truly believe that the effective education reform must be based on a bottom-up or decentralized approach, not a top-down practice. Voices of students must be heard and taken into account.

ELS's open letter is partly a response to the junta's “education-reform roadmap”, published earlier this year, which identifies General Prayut's 12 “core values” in education.

  1. Love for the nation, religions and monarchy
  2. Honesty, patience and good intentions for the public
  3. Gratitude to parents, guardians and teachers
  4. Perseverance in learning
  5. Conservation of Thai culture
  6. Morality and sharing with others
  7. Correct understanding of democracy with the monarch as head of the state
  8. Discipline and respect for the law and elders 
  9. Awareness in thinking and doing things, and following the guidance of His Majesty the King
  10. Living by the sufficiency economy philosophy guided by His Majesty the King
  11. Physical and mental strength against greed
  12. Concern about the public and national good more than self-interest.
Student activists protesting in front of the Thai Education Department. Image by Nattanan Warintarawet (second from right).

Student activists protesting in front of the Thai Education Department. Image by Nattanan Warintarawet (second from right).

Earlier this month, ELS held a peaceful gathering in front of the Ministry of Education. Their aim was to raise student awareness and assert their right to debate the the policies and values that affect their lives. The Education Minister Admiral Narong Pipatanasai unceremoniously called their actions as abnormal.

Warintarawet told Global Voices that the rebuke by the education minister is a restriction on academic freedom:

We have to understand other people. We should respect others, based on humanistic values and not on those values of what the government said.

Different beliefs are not the cause of conflict. Conflict is caused by the inability to not being able to express.

An anti U-NET protest. The U-NET testing system requires every university/college student to take the test in order to graduate. Image by Nattan Warintarawet.

An anti U-NET protest. The U-NET testing system requires every university/college student to take the test in order to graduate. Image by Nattan Warintarawet.

Warintarawet argues that students need to participate in policymaking, which would in turn enable Thai youths to think for themselves. Like her peers, she faces challenges from some nationalist groups, who prefer students to remain obedient to the state. Warintarawet says she gets her determination from her parents, who encourage her to stay dedicated to nonviolent activism. 

We have to accept (that) our country has flaws but extreme nationalism will prevent us from growing.  My parents are supportive but my mother was initially worried. It took me 4 days to reassure her.

Warintarawet says stubborn commitment to outdated ideas is an obstacle to critical thinking—a skill she worries is desperately needed among Thai youth today. Warintarawet also believes government officials are monitoring her at her school, where life has become uncomfortable, she says. The attention amounts to “harassment,” in her own words.

The school administration is keeping an eye on me.

Many people like what I am doing but some don’t want to openly support me.

They have their studies and some say that as a student I should not fight for rights.

ELS recently launched a social media campaign and an online petition to promote academic reform and student rights awareness.

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