In Thailand, students take on the military (and 'death eaters')

Hannah Beech, The New York Times

Posted at Aug 11 2020 11:20 PM

BANGKOK — Her hair is tucked back with rhinestone bobby pins. Owlish glasses frame her face, and her school uniform is neatly pressed.

Benjamaporn Nivas, 15, hardly looks like a rebel. But she is on the forefront of a youth revolt in Thailand against the powerful military’s influence in schools and society in general. Earlier this year, students began protesting strict school rules imposed by past military regimes, such as requiring boys to wear crew cuts and girls to crop their hair at their earlobes.

The protests have since grown, taking on graver issues like the disappearance of Thai dissidents. For weeks now, thousands of students, many dressed in demure school uniforms or as pop culture icons (like a Japanese animated hamster), have staged rallies across the country, urging the armed forces and their allies to withdraw from politics and respect human rights.

Over the weekend and Monday, more large crowds gathered to support young protest leaders who had been briefly detained, defying warnings from the police that they, too, were breaking the law.

“What other countries have these kinds of rules, unless they are dictatorships like North Korea?” said Benjamaporn, referring to the hair regulations. “They want us to be like robots.”

Thailand may project an image of a relaxed holiday destination, where sun, surf and sex intermingle in hedonistic indulgence. But the country is also bound by martial traditions that critics — particularly younger ones — say promote subservience and glorify hierarchies that are ill-suited to modern life.

The prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, is a former army chief who orchestrated a military coup in 2014, the 12th successful one since a 1932 putsch ended Thailand’s absolute monarchy. Two other retired heads of the army are in his Cabinet. Generals drafted the country’s latest constitution to ensure that the military retained significant power even after elections were held.

Prayuth’s government has intensified efforts to instill obedience among the young. Every morning, students are required to belt out a song exalting 12 Thai values, which include discipline and filial piety. On Children’s Day, they take field trips to military encampments to gaze upon tanks and fighter jets.

But rather than fall into line, young Thais have taken to the streets, calling for democratic reform.

At Democracy Monument in Bangkok last week, young people gathered in Harry Potter outfits that were as whimsical as they were nonthreatening. Some clutched chopsticks or batons, raising these makeshift wands to demand that the military stop interfering in politics and society.

“Thailand has been dominated by the dark power of the Death Eaters,” read a statement from the student group that organized the protest, continuing the Potter theme. “It is now time for the wizards and muggles of democracy to come out and join forces to protect rights, freedoms and brotherhood and reclaim power into the hands of the people.”

Protesters raised their hands in a three-fingered salute of defiance from the “Hunger Games” films, a gesture that was forbidden by the junta that orchestrated the last coup.

In June, Benjamaporn engaged in a piece of performance art in Bangkok that was also a protest. Slumping over in a chair, she had her hands tied behind her back and a pair of scissors in her lap. Duct tape covered her mouth. A sign around her neck asked the audience to cut her hair because its tendrils broke school rules.

“Maybe the older generation doesn’t understand that their rights and freedom have been taken from them, but we understand,” Benjamaporn said. “They don’t have the right to touch the hair on our head.”

The military’s grip on society goes back generations in Thailand, where coups are almost as likely as elections to shape politics. The school haircut rule, for instance, was instituted in 1972, when the country was led by a U.S.-backed field marshal.

“In the military government’s intention, the ideal student, like the citizen, should be passively prone,” said Giuseppe Bolotta, an assistant professor of research in anthropology at Durham University in Britain who studies Thailand. The aim, he said, was for the youth to “show absolute loyalty and obedience and be ready to sacrifice for the sake of the nation and its tutelary deities: monarchy, Buddhism and the army.”

Even today, infractions, such as wearing socks that tend toward ecru or eggshell rather than plain white, can earn students a caning, despite a ban on corporal punishment in schools. And army conscription remains a fact of life for young men.

“The military’s values are to not question and to follow orders collectively,” said Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, the president of the political science student union at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “This is imposed in Thai schools, where teachers say we have to be obedient. Because it’s gone on so long, we think this is normal, that the government also has to be obeyed.”

In May, after protests by Netiwit, Benjamaporn and others, the education ministry relaxed the rules on student haircuts. While perms and dyed hair are still taboo, individual schools can now decide on the coiffures of their charges. But many schools, particularly in rural areas, have kept to the old traditions.

In some schools, students are still forced to prostrate themselves before teachers during special ceremonies. Such displays of deference are customary in the presence of Thailand’s monarch. When prime ministers form governments and merit an audience with the king, for example, they crawl on the floor and peer up at the throne from a prone position.

In 2017, Netiwit declined to prostrate himself before a statue of the founder of his university, King Chulalongkorn, who during his reign abolished that very practice. Prayuth, the prime minister, reprimanded Netiwit for his suggestion that students bow instead. The university removed Netiwit from his elected position as head of the student council.

“We live in a cage of militarization, where everything is so rigid and collective, where we have to prostrate on the ground,” Netiwit said. “The government, the teachers, they are stuck in the past.”

That same year, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, a trained fighter pilot who was educated at an Australian defense college, instituted new hairstyles for soldiers, requiring closely trimmed sides and a tuft at the top. The king also endorsed a new style of salute, in which military recruits puff out their chests and twitch their heads.

Earlier this year, the army chief pledged allegiance, first and foremost, to the monarchy. The king has assumed direct control of two influential army units.

At the Harry Potter-themed protest last week, Arnon Nampa, a human rights lawyer who was dressed as a wizard, criticized the military’s lasting influence but also brought up the monarchy, a rare topic for public protests in Thailand. The royal family, which is among the world’s richest, is protected by lèse-majesté laws that can land critics in prison for up to 15 years.

On Friday, Arnon and another protester were arrested on charges of sedition stemming from a different rally, in July. They were also accused of violating emergency measures imposed to fight the coronavirus, though officials had given assurances that the rules would not be used to ban protests.

“We are all starving already, but money is presented lavishly to the monarchy,” Arnon said at the Harry Potter protest, referring to dispersals of state funds and calling for more civilian oversight over the royal coffers. “If we allow this, it is unavoidable that one day there will be a clash with violence.”