A mild-mannered teenage girl with owl glasses, a bob haircut and daisies painted on her fingernails is not your typical school troublemaker, but in the eyes of Thailand’s ultra-conservative school system, Benjamaporn “Ploy” Nivas has been cast as a rebel for daring to express herself.
The 15-year-old is at the forefront of Thailand’s “Bad Student” movement, which is planning a major rally in Bangkok today.
“Students should be able to think for themselves and be themselves,” Ploy said earlier this month at a protest at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument.
Thai schools have very strict dress standards — ponytails and ribbons for girls, military-style crew cuts for boys — but after years of having rules drummed into them, Ploy and some of her fellow high-school students have gone rogue, emboldened by the broader political protest movement sweeping Thailand.
The students want cultural change, a curriculum overhaul, equality and a relaxation of rigid rules.
“We are brainwashed ... as students we are taught not to ask questions, but to study and memorize facts for exams,” she said.
History textbooks are a particular bone of contention in a nation which has undergone a dozen coups since becoming a democracy in 1932.
School textbooks gloss over events such as the massacre of pro-democracy university students in the 1970s and instead focus on promoting the work of the monarchy.
The campaign has had a mixed reaction from her teachers, Ploy said.
“If my teachers are on same side with me, the democracy side, they will admire me, but if they want [to maintain the existing state of affairs], those teachers hate me,” she said.
Pro-democracy protests have rocked Thailand since July and have for the most part been peaceful, but at a rally on Tuesday police used water cannons and tear gas, and six people suffered gunshot wounds.
Despite the dangers, Ploy said that protesting is her duty.
“We cannot afford to be afraid of anything, otherwise we cannot change anything,” she said.
Since August, the Bad Student movement has campaigned for the resignation of Thai Minister of Education Nataphol Teepsuwan and has even staged a mock funeral for him.
There have long been calls to reform the kingdom’s schools, but progress has been piecemeal, said Pumsaran Tongliemnak, an expert at the state-backed Equitable Education Fund.
The Thai government needs to shift its focus from granting access to education to improving its quality, Pumsaran said, particularly for those who cannot afford expensive private schools.
“The gap between the haves and the have-nots is quite high,” Pumsaran said.
In international assessments, Thai students score lower than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average in mathematics and science.
They also perform particularly badly in reading and a World Bank report in 2015 noted widespread “functional illiteracy” among students across Thai schools.
The report said that the problems included chronic teacher shortages, too many under-resourced small schools and a focus on rote learning.
Corporal punishment is still practiced in Thai schools, despite government efforts to ban it.
Teenage girls are the backbone of the Bad Student movement, which Ploy attributes to growing frustrations over the lack of gender equality in Thailand.
“I think that girls and LGBTQ people are suppressed by the patriarchy both at home and at school. This has made me come out to fight for myself and for everyone,” she said.
At an early October rally outside a high school in central Bangkok, scores of mostly female students tied white ribbons on the gate.
They covered the student identification numbers embroidered on their uniforms with tape and shielded their faces from the media.
A young female student leader made an impassioned speech atop a truck outside the school, demanding respect from teachers instead of “preaching about rules.”
It is a sentiment that strikes a chord with Vegas, a 16-year-old transgender student who was forced to change schools because of discrimination and bullying.
Vegas, who declined to give their full name, said that schools train students to fit in with Thailand’s hierarchical society, rather than to challenge or question it.
“Schools are like small dictatorships, with all their rules,” Vegas said.
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