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The “Bad Students” Movement and Human Rights in Contemporary Thailand
El Movimiento de los “Malos Estudiantes” y los Derechos Humanos en la Tailandia
Contemporánea
*Otto F. von Feigenblatt¹, Phillip Pardo², Malcolm Cooper
2
¹Royal Academy of Economics and Financial Sciences, Spain.
2
Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan.
*vonfeigenblatt@hotmail.com
Fecha de recepción: 14/05/2021
Fecha de aceptación:27/06/2021
Publicado:30/06/2021
Abstract
The present paper explores the role of the “Bad Students” Movement in Thailand’s pro-democracy
protests. Local issues such as the social studies curriculum, school uniforms, and disciplinary
measures in the public school system, are presented by the “Bad Students” Movement as a human
rights issue. The discourse used by the Group is deconstructed so as to identify some of the
problems posed by the use of the broader human rights language to challenge strongly held mores
and norms of the Thai education system.
Keywords: human rights, Thailand, bad students, reform
Resumen
El presente artículo explora el papel del movimiento de los "malos estudiantes" en las protestas a
favor de la democracia en Tailandia. Los problemas locales, como el plan de estudios de estudios
sociales, los uniformes escolares y las medidas disciplinarias en el sistema de escuelas públicas,
son presentados por el Movimiento de “Malos Estudiantes” como una cuestión de derechos
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humanos. El discurso utilizado por el Grupo se desmonta para identificar algunos de los problemas
planteados por el uso del lenguaje más amplio de los derechos humanos para desafiar las
costumbres y normas del sistema educativo tailandés.
Palabras clave: derechos humanos, Tailandia, malos estudiantes, reforma.
Introduction
The Kingdom of Thailand, formerly known as Siam, is known for one of the best education
systems in Southeast Asia (Amyot, 2003). Part of the country’s success in the field of education
can be attributed to the intervention of enlightened members of the Royal family since the reign of
King Mongkut in the 19
th
century who hired Anna Hariette Leonowens to serve as a teacher at the
Siamese Court (Pitiyanuwat & Sujiva, 2005; University, 2014). This early school for members of
the Royal Family would become the prototype for the entire primary and secondary school system.
King Mongkut’s grandson, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) established Chulalongkorn
University, based on the former school for civil servants, as the country’s premier university
(University, 2014). The University was named in honor of King Rama V, who played a very
important role in modernizing the country in the late 19
th
century (Wyatt, 2003). Chulalongkorn
University is ranked as one of the top universities of Asia and it has a very strong corporate culture
emphasizing loyalty to the monarchy and service to the nation (Amyot, 2003).
It should thus be noted that the Thai education system reflects many traditional values
considered to be central to Thai culture (Schiller & Liefner, 2007). One of the peculiar features of
Thai education at both the secondary and even undergraduate levels is that students wear uniforms
to class (Amyot, 2003). Thai students at the primary and secondary school levels also have to
follow strict rules regarding the length and color of their hair. Historically the purpose of uniforms
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has been to inculcate loyalty to both the institution and to the nation as a whole through an
emphasis on group identity rather than on individual differences (Feigenblatt et al., 2010).
Discipline is also very strict in comparison to Western standards and students are singled out
for shaming as a mild form of punishment for offenses against the norms of the group. Moreover,
there is a strict hierarchy among students based on seniority which is enforced both by teachers as
well as by the students themselves (Feigenblatt et al., 2010). The system encourages conformity
and obedience, and it resembles military and other total institutions in that the individual is shaped
to fit the ideal mold provided by the institution.
Thailand’s education system is a reflection of the country’s strict social hierarchy, classified
by Hofstede as high power distance (Eldridge & Cranston, 2009; Poocharoen, 2010). Teachers are
treated with utmost respect and there is even a yearly celebration in which the students have to
prostrate themselves in front of their teachers to thank them for their guidance and support. Even
though many of these rituals and practices run counter to American and Western European cultural
norms of equality (Rouault, Pardo, & Drugmand, 2020), they are perfectly compatible with
Thailand’s traditional cosmovision based on the three pillars of the kingdom, namely, religion
(Theravadha Buddhism), the monarchy, and the nation (Dalpino, 2011; Feigenblatt et al., 2010;
Unger, 2009; Wyatt, 2003).
In recent years, in particular since the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra in the early 2000s,
countercurrents proposing alternative norms and mores have become more visible (Hamlin, 2009;
Sinpeng & Kuhonta, 2012). Electoral victories by the Thai Rai Thai, a populist party with a strong
base of support from the poor north of the country, have challenged the traditional view of Thailand
as a land of consensus and social stability (Dalpino, 2011; Dressel, 2009). Two subsequent military
coups further evidence the challenges presented to the traditional monolithic view of Thailand as
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a country universally in support of the three pillars (Murphy, 2009). Nevertheless the strong
counter currents to re-impose a conservative view of the nation and of the state also support the
view that there is still a large percentage of the population who supports the traditional order
represented by the monarchy and by institutions such as schools, public universities, and the
military (Le-Coz, 2009).
Recent events in Thailand, preceding the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic, such as the
drafting of Thailand’s most recent constitution, guaranteeing considerable power for the military
and other conservative institutions, resulted in widespread protests by a very eclectic group of non-
state actors (Ngamkham & Mala, 2021). Protests included members of the business elite who were
dissatisfied with the role of the bureaucracy and the central role of the military in Thai politics,
poor farmers from the Northeast who want a larger share of the country’s wealth, aging agitators
from the leftist fringe of academia with memories of the failed attempts at reform of the 1970s,
and a larger number of students, inter alia (Ngamkham & Mala, 2021; "Thanathorn ordered to
erase vaccine supply criticism," 2021). A group in particular, calling itself the “Bad Students”, is
of interest because of its complaints and demands to the government and its institutions (""Bad
Students" hang up uniforms at Education Ministry," 2020).
The present paper does not attempt to assess the legitimate/illegitimate claims of the many
actors involved in the protest movement of 2020-2021 but rather focuses on the opportunistic
discursive co-optation of Human Rights language by a small, yet highly vocal and visible group
of disaffected students calling itself the “Bad Students”. Extreme broadening of the purview of
Human Rights, as presented by many activists and nonprofit organizations in Southeast Asia, and
particularly in Thailand, has had the detrimental effect of hardening the attitudes of many members
of the regional political elites in relation to this type of discourse (Chang, Chun, & Park, 2007;
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Kim, Fidler, & Ganguly, 2009; Rüland, 2011). Competing models and terms such as social justice,
sufficiency economy, sustainable development, inter alia, are gaining traction at the expense of
“human rights(Chachavalpongpun, 2009; Unger, 2009). A similar process has taken place with
the discourse of “human security” due to its expansion resulting ambiguity (Akaha, 2009;
Battersby & Siracusa, 2009; Bhattacharjee, 2007; Feigenblatt, 2010b; King & Murray, 2001).
Theoretical Framework
The present exploratory paper is guided by a critical theory approach to political contestation
(Stuart Sim, 2005). Nevertheless critical theory is broad and has both materialist and constructivist
variants, the present paper favors the constructivist end of the critical theory spectrum. Moreover
a narrative analysis approach is applied to public statements made by the “Bad Students” group in
order to interpret their goals and demands (Cortazzi, 2007).
“Bad Students”
Traditional Thai culture has a high regard for education as a sign of merit (Amyot, 2003). There is
a certain religious element to education in that people with a higher level of education are
considered to have accumulated a higher level of merit. Thus, from a Theravadha Buddhist
perspective education leads to enlightenment and people who possess it have a certain aura of
wisdom. The clearest observable example of this is the Wai Kru celebration in which students
prostrate themselves to pay respect to their teachers. Offerings of flowers and food are provided
to teachers and the teachers then bless the students. The ritual reinforces a hierarchical relationship
between student and teacher which affects even the way in which teachers interact with students
and their parents outside of school (Heidhues, 2000). Tellingly, parent teacher associations in
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Thailand are dominated by teachers, and parents, in particular those from humble backgrounds,
approach teachers with a very deferential attitude.
Thailand has a centralized system of education headed by a Ministry of Education which
controls the curricula and emphasizes the teaching of traditional Thai values, including a very
strong “civic religion” teaching students the importance of the “Three Pillars” of the nation
(Feigenblatt, 2016; Pitiyanuwat & Sujiva, 2005). Education, in particular public education in
Thailand, is as much about teaching content as it is about socializing future members of society
(Pitiyanuwat & Sujiva, 2005; Suttichujit, 2013). Form is as importance as essence in that dress,
manners, and discipline are considered to be as important as or even more important than
educational attainment (Lavankura, 2013). Thus, there is very little tolerance for deviance from
social norms. Education is aimed at creating functional members of society who can contribute to
the group and who are willing to sacrifice their personal short term wants for the benefit of the
community (Wyatt, 2003). Therefore in this type of system and educational context, deviance of
any shape or form is not only frowned upon but it is severely discouraged. Examples of practices
which differ from contemporary trends in American, and to a large extent Western European
practice, include the use of public shaming as a punishment, corporal punishment while technically
illegal is still prevalent, and scores are still posted publicly.
It should be noted that norms are enforced not only by teachers, parents, and other adults but
by the students themselves. There is a tradition, prevalent in most of Asia, of the junior
(nong)/senior (pi) relationship which functions as a way for upperclassmen to help socialize
underclassmen into the norms accepted by the institution, and in this case of the entire nation
(Amyot, 2003; Morton & Olenik, 2005). Thus, there is a total control of the individual in which
the goal is for the individual to reshape his or her identity based on what is needed by the
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community. In this type of environment, individual eccentricities are not taken as a sign of genius
but rather as a flaw that needs to be corrected (Smith, 1997; Wyatt, 2003). The system is designed
to help the majority of the student population rather than focus on the minority of students who do
not fit the ideal mold, either because they have learning disabilities or deviant cultural backgrounds
(Feigenblatt, 2016).
The previous paragraphs provide context to the emergence of the “Bad students” group.
Students who disagree with the strict rules regarding uniforms and behavior are exposed to
competing social norms supported by Western powers, and in particular by the United States. This
is particularly true in the field of education, which is dominated by American faculties of education
favoring models of educations with an emphasis on the holistic development of the individual
(Eldridge & Cranston, 2009; Feigenblatt, 2016; Georgakopoulos, 2009). Examples include, inter
alia, universal design learning (UDL) and the Montessori system (Hallinger & Lu, 2013;
Praphamontripong, 2010). Terms such as “individualized learning”, differentiation in teaching,
and scaffolding, all reflect an emphasis on the needs of the individual rather than on those of the
community (Hallinger & Lu, 2013; Scholz, 2013). Another interesting term is “learner centered
classroom” which also takes away the focus from the teacher in favor of the student (Hallinger &
Lu, 2013). Students in Thailand and many of their parents, in particular young cosmopolitan
couples based in the capital, are exposed to these new trends in education through international
print media and movies and conflate the high quality of life in Western industrialized countries
with the previously mentioned education methods (Unger, 2009; Rouault et al., 2021). The denial
of the highly centralized Thai education system to cater to the demands for change of that very
vocal minority and the very real social sanctions suffered by those who challenge the system has
resulted in many proponents to adopt the language of human rights in an effort to gain more
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international support and to integrate their demands into the wider struggle for democratic reforms
(Ungpakorn, 2007, 2010).
The Group calling itself the “Bad Students” club is relatively small in terms of numbers,
approximately 100 core members, even though it is very hard to ascertain the exact numbers
because of the diffuse nature of the movement (""Bad Students" hang up uniforms at Education
Ministry," 2020; Ngamkham & Mala, 2021; "Thanathorn ordered to erase vaccine supply
criticism," 2021). Another challenge in terms of understanding this particular group is that many
of the participants in their rallies may be opportunistic rather than devoted members. Another
important challenge is that the movement seems to be propped up by foreign groups, most of their
media coverage is foreign rather than local and thus their actual influence on the group may be
much smaller than expected (""Bad Students" hang up uniforms at Education Ministry," 2020).
Mirroring the environmental movement’s choice to elevate teenage Greta Thurnberg as a poster
child, the foreign media has also narrowed its focus on Ploy Benjamaporn, a 15 year old student
who has served as informal leader of the “Bad Students” group (""Bad Students" hang up uniforms
at Education Ministry," 2020). There is also an interesting connection between local nonprofit
organizations supporting the movement and international media outlets. Thai Lawyers for Human
Rights seems to be a core organization based on its defense of members of the group accused of
breaking Thai laws during their protests (Ngamkham & Mala, 2021).
The language used by Ploy” to describe the goals of the movement and its criticism of the
government and the education system is clearly based on Western discourses about human rights
and feminism. “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” claims Ploy (""Bad
Students" hang up uniforms at Education Ministry," 2020; Martin & Chaisamritpol, 2020). She
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takes this argument one step further by stating that “Schools are like small dictatorships, with all
their rules” (Martin & Chaisamritpol, 2020).
One of the challenges in terms of understanding this particular group is that communication
seems to be centered on this particular student leader, “Ploy”, filtered by the groups’ allies in
friendly non-profit organizations (Kittisilpa & Thepgumpanat, 2020; Martin & Chaisamritpol,
2020). It is hard to ascertain whether the emphasis on the language of human rights and the use of
Western standards of schooling is something that was sincerely expressed by the student protesters
or it is imposed by their Western backers.
The Co-optation of Human Rights Discourse for Ideological Purposes
The discourse of human rights is not new to Thailand (Akaha, 2009; Dalpino, 2011; Tow, Thakur,
& Hyun, 2000). Many academic conferences have been held about the topic and there are several
programs at the master’s and doctoral level with a concentration on the topic. Mahidol University,
one of the top public universities of the country, has a very strong program focusing on human
rights ("Social Science Division: Mahidol University International College," 2016). Nevertheless,
there is ambivalence in the academic community of Thailand regarding the usefulness and
applicability of the “Human Rights” discursive paradigm for the Thai socio-cultural context
(Amyot, 2003; Chachavalpongpun, 2009; Chang, Chu, & Park, 2007; Lavankura, 2013).
Competing and overlapping concepts such as Human Security and most importantly the concept
of “Sufficiency Economy” deal with similar issues from different perspectives (Battersby &
Siracusa, 2009; Bhattacharjee, 2007; Brown, 2014; Feigenblatt, 2009b, 2010b; Unger, 2009).
The universal claims of Human Rights are a great strength but also a weakness in the Southeast
Asian context. A history of colonialism in the region paralleled by Euro-American ethnocentrism
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makes local intellectuals and policy elites suspicious of paradigms making universal claims (Kim
et al., 2009; McCargo, 2005). Thai scholars have pointed out how some aspects of the human
rights paradigm are clearly nested on Western conceptions of individualism and Judeo-Christian
philosophy (Pitiyanuwat & Sujiva, 2005). There is also a resistance to the emphasis on rights rather
than a more holistic approach to development and governance that also includes duties.
Another challenge in terms of gaining the support of stakeholders in Thailand for the demands
made by the “Bad Students” is that Thailand is already facing many pressing challenges such as a
very deep economic recession, high unemployment, and an overstretched healthcare system
(DRESSEL, 2009; Feigenblatt, 2009a, 2009c, 2010 2012, 2020). Thus if everything is apriority”
then nothing is a “priority”. This same phenomenon of donor exhaustion and general
desensitization was observed with the concept of “human security” in the early years of the 21
st
century (Feigenblatt, 2010a; Gilson, 2007; King & Murray, 2001; MacFarlane & Khong, 2006).
For unemployed workers in the Northeast and for street vendors dealing with the challenges of the
COVID restrictions, the students’ complaints about dress code and hair style rules may seem minor
and foreign.
Thailand has a very strong norm favoring seniority in all aspects of life (Wyatt, 2003). Respect
for elders is part of the country’s traditional culture which results in people in positions of power
in most sectors to be quite advanced in age, over 60 in some parts of the economy. Thus, the
generations now in power grew up during the time of the Cold War in which Thailand was in the
front lines of the global struggle (Wyatt, 2003). The Cold War was experienced differently in
Thailand compared to Western Europe or the United States in that the struggle was for the
protection of what was perceived as traditional Thai culture and independence (Roux, 1998;
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Syukri, 1985). At the core of the struggle was the institution of the monarchy, Buddhism, and the
military as the protector of the nation.
The vast majority of the elite are trained at two historical institutions, namely the
Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy (CRMA) and Chulalongkorn University (Amyot, 2003).
Both institutions have a long tradition and a strong connection to the monarchy. The CRMA and
Chula (Chualongkorn University) are both highly selective and follow a strict seniority system
("Graduate School: Admission and Study," 2016). CRMA trains the military elite while Chula
trains the civilian elite. Thailand does not have a legacy system in terms of admissions but rather
has very competitive entrance examinations. Moreover, once admitted the student/cadet must go
through a painful socialization process into a strict cohort system based on seniority and loyalty to
the group and institution. Interestingly, socialization of new students is mostly in the hands of
senior students, who are in charge of organizing and overseeing a complex program of activities
and rituals with the ultimate purpose of rebuilding a new identity for the new students (Amyot,
2003). The process includes hazing and a certain degree of public humiliation but it produces a
highly loyal, devoted, and qualified cadre of military officers and civil servants. Tellingly, the
“Bad Students” have virtually no support from the current or former students of those two elite
institutions. The main lesson in the complex set of events and rituals used to socialize new students
is that privileges and membership in the group have to be earned. New students are reminded of
the proud history of the institutions and that they have a great opportunity to be reshaped or formed
into successful professionals if they follow the rules and put in the work. This is a very deferential
attitude to authority which in many cases is surprising to the outside observer. One obvious reason
why new students support this system is because they know that everyone has to go through it and
that those in power today were the new students of the past. Thus, the rituals might be painful and
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demeaning, but someday the new students will become senior students who should also earn their
respect.
It is very difficult for graduates of Chula and the CRMA to sympathize with Ploy’s complaints
about all the rules of schools. In many cases those complaints are viewed as foreign fads fueled by
American popular culture and by non-profit organizations funded from abroad. Thus, there is a
disconnect (Rouault, Pardo, & Drugmand, 2020) between the social worlds of the “Bad Students”
and the graduates of CU and CRMA. Moreover, members of the socio-cultural elite of the country
view attacks on traditional norms as attacks on their own positions of authority (Poocharoen,
2010). If discipline and respect to authority figures is a symptom of the existence of a dictatorship,
a word with extremely negative connotations in the international realm, and thus regulations
regarding dress and demeanor are oppressive symbols of patriarchy, then their years of dutiful
service and sacrifice would be meaningless.
Another interesting development in terms of the popular perception of school discipline and
rules is the rise of an aspiring business middle class (Feigenblatt, 2016; Lavankura, 2013; Murphy,
2009). The Thai class system is not primarily based on money but rather focuses on education and
occupation (Unger, 2009). There is a clear discrepancy between the American ideal of social
mobility based on income and the traditional idea of class which is based on status rather than on
income (Chetty, Hendren, Jones, & Porter, 2018). Members of this relatively affluent rising middle
class, mostly focused in the business sector, admire the American/Western focus on income and
productivity as the main marker of social class and resent the traditional pecking order based on
merit and education (Murphy, 2009). One way for members of this particular group to challenge
hegemonic discourses on class and status is to enroll their children in schools which follow
alternative education models, mostly imported from the West. Not all members can afford to send
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their children to these new experimental private schools and therefore find themselves in the
uncomfortable position of having to send their children to traditional public schools which favor a
traditional view of Thai culture and education. It is interesting to note that the relatively few parents
supporting this particular group of “Bad Students” tend to belong to this group of new aspirational
middle class urban people, even though at this point data in this regard is mostly anecdotal and
superficial (Martin & Chaisamritpol, 2020).
Conclusions
Thai history is the history of “big men” who represent different socio-cultural groups and
competing ideologies and most area experts agree that Thai politics are characterized by a
clientelism resembling the caudillismo of Latin American politics in the 19
th
century (McCargo,
2009; Pongsudhirak, 2008; Poocharoen, 2010; Unger, 2009). Therefore it is not surprising that
both the “mainstream” and the opposition are headed by elites rather than representing legitimate
spontaneous social movements (Ungpakorn, 2007, 2010). The role of the former Prime Minister
Thaksin Shinawatra, a successful businessman, as the behind the scenes de facto leader of the
opposition and the current role of Thanathorn Juangroongruangki, a young billionaire turned
politician of the disbanded political party known as the Future Forward Party, point towards the
conclusion of business as usual and of a deeper struggle between the traditional elite and
progressive sectors of the business community (Dalpino, 2011; Dressel, 2009; Ockey, 2007).
The co-optation of the language of human rights to promote changes in the education system
of Thailand does a disservice to the human rights framework. There are serious human rights issues
to be discussed in Southeast Asia such as treatment of refugees, poverty in certain regions, and
human trafficking, inter alia (Chan, 2018; Sorajjakool, 2013; Stephens, 2016). The international
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attention paid to “Ploy” and the “Bad Students” group shows a double standard in terms of news
coverage and serves to distract attention from more pressing issues. Concerns which are better
suited for the Parent Teacher Association should not share the public sphere with issues of more
pressing concern. The international press is not reporting on human rights abuses in West Point
Military Academy USA because of the compulsory use of uniforms there or featuring an editorial
about the regulations on hair length at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in the United
Kingdom.
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