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5 October 2021

How “Bad Student” is challenging authoritarian rule in Thailand

As pro-democracy protests continue to shake the country, one group is demanding reform from the classroom up.

By Jessica Rawnsley

At first glance, 18-year-old Min doesn’t appear the conventional rebel. He’s soft spoken; his youth etched in his slender shoulders, his shy smile. He’s rarely seen in the media. Yet Min is the anonymous force behind a Twitter account of several hundred thousand followers, and founder of a student movement that is taking on Thailand’s authoritarian education system.

The “Bad Student”, as the account is dubbed, is one of many interlocking youth-led protest groups that have been rocking Thailand since August 2020. The wider pro-democracy movement’s demands include reforming the monarchy, a new constitution and, most recently, the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha over his handling of Covid-19. The Bad Student’s catalysts for protest is similar – a militarised, top-down culture with no freedom of expression – but its focus is school, not society. 

Min sees the two causes – political and educational – as inextricably linked. “We’re calling for rights and freedoms within the educational system, and this is not possible in a country that’s not democratised,” he says. “The democracy protests are a top-down calling. [Bad Student is] working from the bottom up, trying to highlight the problems at the base of the pyramid. People are trying both ways in the hopes this pyramid of authoritarianism will collapse.”

Jan Boontinand, director of the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies at Mahidol University, looks at the education system’s influence on democratisation. The curriculum, like the teaching and culture, is very conservative, she says. “It’s trying to promote order, discipline and conformity: a hierarchical society.” For Boontinand, this partly explains why 90 years of regime change, punctuated by frequent coups, has largely been accepted. “The fact that we cannot completely shift to democracy, we fall back into the same loop, it has to do with how we’ve been framed in our mentality.”

Thai schools are riddled with severe rules. Dress and haircuts are strictly prescribed: the military-style hair edicts trace back to 1972, in the military dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn. (Revised regulations were issued in May 2020 but most schools continue to enforce the code.) Education is characterised by rote learning. Textbooks toe the monarchist line, with events such as the 1970s government-instigated massacre of pro-democracy students glossed over, and the work of the monarchy elevated.

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Students report regular abuse. Long hair is reportedly sometimes cut in a way to induce humiliation; wooden rulers are used to smack; weights are hung on non-protocol earrings to make them painful. “Grades are also used to threaten,” says Min. “If a teacher doesn’t like a kid, they give them bad grades. It’s always like that, there’s no scrutiny.”

The kaleidoscope of maltreatment prompted Min to quit formal education and turn to homeschooling – twice. His parents initially took him out of school aged 12, concerned the oppressive culture would hinder his development. Min rejoined aged 15 but he could not stay silent under the deluge of arbitrary rules and violence. He began to protest: writing letters, demonstrating, distributing leaflets outside the school gates. The result was a home visit by his principal and an order to cease or leave. When the school year finished, Min did not go back.

What was the final straw? “It was the hair. There was no concept of freedom, individuality.” He pauses. “I’m in the LGBTQ community… When I was younger, I wasn’t brave enough to come out, but when I went back I had grown up and opened up about it. I was bullied in many ways.” Once he quit school, he began to experiment with his hairstyle. “I grew my hair and adopted the lifestyle of a woman. Thai society is very binary. We only know male and female. So if I’m not male, then who am I? I must be female.” But the long hair didn’t feel like him either, and he cut it short again. Now, Min says he understands there are “many divergences of gender”. “Homeschooling gave me the ability to explore myself and who I am. That’s something you can’t get in school.”

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Despite leaving, Min felt he had to do more. His own social media feeds were flooded with stories of harassment, and on the first day of a term in 2020, he opened the Bad Student Twitter to collate students’ reports. “I wanted to share what was happening, be a voice for students,” he says. “For one whole month, I woke up, scrolled and updated, scrolled and updated.”

Within months, the account’s following soared to hundreds of thousands. Before long, the movement sparked its own public protests, joining the demonstrations that swept Thailand in 2020. Students swarmed the streets in T-rex costumes, a sardonic sketch of their archaic teachers; they marched to Thailand’s education ministry in their school uniforms; they staged a mock funeral for (then current, now former) minister of education Nataphol Teepsuwan. When he appeared to address them, they made him wait his turn to speak, deliberately upending Thailand’s deep-rooted hierarchy.

Today, while a new wave of Covid-19 has stoppered some of the Bad Student group’s actions, its online work continues. The Twitter account is being used to collect testimonies of abuse and flag them to the Ministry of Education. “We get hundreds of messages in the inbox every day: students being hit, expelled because they were vocal about politics, discrimination against LGBTQ students,” says Min. “We listen, categorise the complaints and act as a middle person to raise students’ voices to authorities.”

Over 100 spin-off groups have sprung up in schools across Thailand. The Bad Student group is compiling a book for school’s return in November, detailing students’ rights and ways to mobilise. Alongside university professors and other student groups, it is also drafting an Education Bill to push through parliament. It includes protections for students’ human rights at school, teacher reforms and flexible education structures catered to each student. 

Diabolical OECD scores underline the country’s educational failings. In 2018, Thailand’s 15-year-olds ranked 56th in maths, 52nd in science and 66th in reading out of 79 countries. “Thai education is memorisation-based, so students can’t apply their knowledge,” explains Boontinand.

Reforms are being made, according to Pumsaran Tongliemnak, policy analyst at the Ministry of Education: “The MOE [ministry] is working to create a competency-based curriculum more in line with what students should learn for the 21st century. Critical thinking is something they want students to have.”

Yet in many respects, responses from the authorities have only exacerbated the repressive culture. Police officers have questioned student activists at home. Over a hundred have been persecuted, and some prosecuted by the state. Some teachers have taken punishment into their own hands, says Min. “The teachers hunt down the student who spoke out, publicly shame them, and take them to the principal to sign a paper pledging they will not embarrass the school again.” In one case, a student is being sued for damaging the school’s reputation; in others, students have been slapped and threatened with mark deductions. 

Responses to the pro-democracy movement follow a similar pattern. The street protests that continue to rock the nation are handled with increasing violence by police. In August, live shots left one 15-year-old in a comaOver a thousand have been arrested and charged. The fury has spread to new sections of the population: previous supporters of Chan-o-cha are joining the young on the streets.

Could Bad Student be the added spur needed for Thailand’s transformation? “If we talk about actual demands, nothing has really changed,” says Min. “But what is tangible is the drive of younger generations to stand up for what’s right, to understand we have the right to speak, the right to demand change. We don’t have to wait.”

[See also: How K-Pop fans are helping Thai protesters stay out of jail]