BANGKOK >> Hundreds of high school students besieged Thailand’s Ministry of Education and harangued and booed the education minister when he came to speak to them, in the latest in a growing series of anti-government protests.
The students demanded a better education and said the administration of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was not competent to deliver it and should resign.
About 400 students wearing school uniforms with white ribbons, a symbol of the protest movement, joined in anti-government chants and gave three-fingered salutes, a sign of resistance to oppression borrowed from “The Hunger Games.” Some tied white bows to the gates of the ministry.
When Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan and his aides appeared, a chorus of jeers rose from today’s crowd. He tried to talk to some students near the front of the group, only to be roundly scolded and told he was late so should go to the back.
It was a remarkable response to an authority figure from students schooled in a system that stresses deference and respect for elders.
He did as instructed, going to the very back of the group, then sat down and listened patiently to those there, writing down their complaints and responding, while sweating heavily in the afternoon sun.
Six years ago, Nataphol took part in large-scale street protests that helped trigger the army coup that brought Prayuth to power. Some student protesters blew whistles as he spoke, a disruptive tactic his own movement had used in 2014.
“I’m happy that they dare to speak out and that they are interested in politics at this age, as long as their ideas are beneficial to the country,” he said just before leaving. “They are the future and my future depends on them.”
Many pupils seemed unimpressed, jeering him again and making thumbs-down gestures.
Protests at high schools began last week with students showing support on their campuses for a growing wave of anti-government demonstrations led by university students.
“If we carry on protesting just within our school grounds other people won’t be aware of it. The wider we spread awareness the better for the cause,” one 15-year-old said.
The student-led protests are becoming the most serious threat yet to Prayuth’s rule. As army chief, he seized power in the 2014 military coup and then retained it in a 2019 election widely seen as rigged to all but guarantee his victory.
But with key Cabinet posts still in the hands of former generals, people are weary of the military’s continuing influence on the running of the country and of Prayuth’s leadership and performance.
The economy has struggled to compete with its neighbors, even before the heavy damage inflicted by measures to counter the coronavirus pandemic.
The administration’s image has also been tarnished by corruption scandals for which no one has been held accountable.
The student protests have declared three core demands: holding new elections, amending the military-imposed constitution and ending the intimidation of critics of the government.
Protest leaders triggered controversy earlier this month when they expanded their original agenda, publicly criticizing Thailand’s constitutional monarchy and issuing a 10-point manifesto calling for its reform.
Their action was virtually unprecedented, as the monarchy is considered sacrosanct and any criticism is normally kept private. A lese majeste law calls for a prison sentence of up to 15 years for anyone found guilty of defaming the king.
One of the activists who allegedly made critical remarks, Arnon Nampha, was arrested Wednesday and charged with sedition and violation of a public assembly law for participating in a Harry Potter-themed protest on Aug. 3. Three other political and labor activists were arrested Wednesday, according to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. They were charged with sedition and other offenses related to a protest in July.
The group also tweeted that Arnon was denied bail and would be brought to the criminal court Thursday morning.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that Thai authorities should drop all charges and release the detained pro-democracy activists.
“The Thai government’s repeated promises to listen to dissenting voices have proven meaningless as the crackdown on pro-democracy activists continues unabated,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should right their wrong and immediately drop the charges and release Arnon and other detained activists.”