Penguin: high school student sparks campaign against junta’s draft charter

Under the junta’s climate of fear and intimidation where politicians, academics, and civil society are silenced, a high school student, Parit Chiwarak, withstands the pressure and actively protects the right to free education from the junta’s attempts to abolish it. 

Parit Chiwarak (Penguin)

Since the junta has come to power, it has made repeated attempts to remove fundamental welfare benefits of Thai citizen. Education faces the same problem since the junta’s draft charter, which will be subjected to the referendum on 7 August, will remove the right to free high school education and cover only free education from kindergarten to junior high school. However, the junta head, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, recently invoked Article 44 of the Interim Constitution to order the Education Ministry to provide free education from kindergarten to high school.

Surprisingly, the person who needs to be thanked for achieving this change of heart in the junta chief is not a politician, NGO, or media organization, but just a high school student activist, Parit Chiwarak, aka Penguin. He is an 18-year-old 12th grade student from the highly competitive Triam Udom Suksa School (TU), arguably one of the most conservative in the country. He is also a former Secretary-General of Education for Liberation of Siam (ELS), an activist group of high school students demanding Thai education system reforms.        

In April, he and his friends from ELS paraded signs in front of Meechai Ruechuphan, the Chairperson of the Constitution Drafting Committee, demanding the reinstatement of free high school education into the constitution. Prior to that event, Penguin started an online campaign “Return Our Free High Schools”. He regularly criticized the junta’s attempts to abolish free high schools on his Facebook page. The campaign grabbed public and media attention and finally led to the invoking of Article 44.

Penguin’s campaign undoubtedly played a large role in pressuring the junta to bring back free high schools. He also participated in many political campaigns against the junta which sometimes put him at risk of intimidation by the authorities.

Penguin dances in a Music Video ‘This one needs to be kneed’ produced by a group of activists. The video aims to persuade people to ‘vote no’ in the August charter draft referendum.

His life story is full of irony and energy. Judging from his appearance, no one would think that he is a political activist, but the kind of chubby Chinese-looking student who gets bullied at school. He is a progressive student despite studying at one of the most conservative high schools in the country with a traditional method of teaching.  He also revealed to Prachatai that political dissent in Thailand in the past decade played a big role in shaping his political ideas.

When did you start your political activity?

I began my activist path a year ago. However, I have been interested in politics since I was young. When I was in grade four, I read the story of the French Revolution and found that politics is something colourful. That was when I realized the value of freedom and liberty.

I am person who loves freedom.  My ideas have gradually changed.  I believe in the idea of liberty and that we, all people, are free and politics must be fair. In my life, in primary school, there was the political crackdown in 2010. In junior high school, there was the PDRC. In high school, there was the coup. My life has run into political events all along.    

Are your parents concerned about your political activism?  

At home they are concerned.  It’s normal for parents.  But I say that this is my life.  When they gave me life, it became mine.  But the ideas of each person are not the same.  My parents respect the differences in opinion but very often our views of the world are in conflict and can’t get along, but I see it as lively.

Why and when did you decide to join the ELS?

I have known about this group personally since lower high school. I was friends with a member of the group.  I knew her when we had a Chinese language tutorial class together. At that time, I didn’t see any need to join the group. I was a progressive person despite living in a conservative family, but the atmosphere was liberal enough. In primary school I studied in a private demonstration school which was quite open. When I went to TU, which is a very Thai school, I found the truth in many things, for example, an atmosphere where arguing with the teacher was frowned on.  This made me feel that I was humiliated in front of my friends, although we were discussing academically.

We were debating a poem about Thai farmers and my teacher said that we should go back to sufficiency. I asked if so, would the country progress?  Wouldn’t we then be under-industrialized?  The teacher said that I was evil and had forgotten the Thai way. This made me feel that no matter how good my reasons were, the person with power, i.e. the teacher, would not give me any space.  Just that.  I needed a forum, which was ELS.    

What are the roles and main goals of the ELS?

We are an advocacy group for youth aiming to destroy the conspiracy of silence and the climate of fear within the Thai education system. If there are students who think differently from the mainstream discourse in society, we will be there to tell them that they are not the only ones who think differently.

Our network members come from various backgrounds but all of them are high-school students or lower. We have approximately 50-70 members from various provinces across the country such as Bangkok, Udon Thani, Lampang, Nakhon Sawan, and Maha Sarakham. However, only 10-20 members are actively engaged with the network.

We want to be an inspiration for those students who want to raise questions against the establishment. In the past year, we have explored broader issues and grabbed a lot of media attention. This is actually not to my own credit. The previous secretary-generals have contributed immensely to the network. However, the campaign ‘Return Our Free High Schools’ is something more significant since it relates to the fundamental welfare of the people. Without the campaign, the policy might easily pass without criticism.

In the long term plan, what we have done will lead to the creation of a “resistance culture”. If there is only one student thinking differently, everyone will say he or she is aggressive. But if there are a thousand students thinking differently, everyone will say they are creative.  

Penguin and his frineds from ELS post their image on Facebook with a message reading ‘Return Our Free High Schools’ (source: Penguin's Facebook page)

Why did you decide to campaign on “Return Our Free High Schools”?

In fact, the campaign slightly deviates from our group’s main goal but it is necessary to take some action. We previously fought against traditional practices within public schools, for instance, the compulsory student uniform and haircut. However, those problems are not an issue if youths are unable to enrol in high school. Therefore, when our channels for advocacy are limited by the authorities, we have to raise the most important issues.  

In the end, it became the most memorable campaign I’ve ever achieved in my political activist life because I successfully highlighted a fundamental rights issue and put it on the public agenda. We were able to grab the state’s attention and force them to fix the issue. The impact from the campaign is pretty obvious.

What do you think about the news that the junta head has activated Article 44 of the Interim Charter to provide free education to high school students?

I would like to conclude like this. Your rare hornbill was stolen so you demanded that the robber return it to you. The robber then returns to you a sparrow and asks you to thank him for returning your bird. It’s as simple as that.

After the activation of Article 44, Penguin posts this picture on Facebook. The message on his hand reads ‘Why not write it in the charter?’ (Source: Penguin’s Facebook page)

Have you ever experienced intimidation from the junta?

The group has not faced any official intimidation. For my own experience, I was briefly detained by the police when I raised signs demanding that Prime Minister Prayut replace the notorious “civil duty studies” with philosophy and ethics.

The first time I personally encountered the authorities was during a seminar hosted by the ELS. The police thought that I was an organizer of the seminar and searched me. I was afraid although I knew that it was just normal intimidation. However, that experience made me more active in politics because I thought that there are many other people who experience more severe intimidation than me but they still actively fight against the junta.   

You have already resigned from your position in the ELS. Will you continue your activist path?

I think education is inarguably significant. Education reform is equal to social reform so I will continue following the issue despite my resignation. Education reform should start by bringing back a normal political atmosphere since good education is based on the principle of free discussion, which cannot happen under this political situation. The education system should belong to everyone and answer everyone’s needs. Parents should be able to decide what kind of subjects their children should be taught.  

What are your plans for your future education and career path?

I want to study at the Political Science Faculty, Thammasat University. I am a student at Triam Udom which is located next to Chulalongkorn University so its atmosphere is similar to the University and I want a change of atmosphere. Also, for me, TU has a sense of freedom and liberty while CU has a high sense of conservatism.  

For my career, I would like to be a Thai historian because, first of all, I have loved reading history since I was young. But more importantly, I think various interesting explanations in Thai history are still left unfulfilled. For example, many people do not know that the ethnic Tai, which are arguably believed to be the origin of the Thai people, lived in various countries across the continent. People don’t know this fact because traditional Thai history textbooks do not say so.

What do you think about being a progressive student in TU which is one the most conservative high schools of the country?

TU students actually have different thoughts and ideas. Some are conservative and some are progressive, but I think that most have taken no side yet. I think that this school mimics the reality of Thai society where those who take no sides and never question the status quo eventually become conservative people.

What is the most crucial problem in Thai education which needs to be solved?

From a student’s perspective, the biggest problem in Thai education is the lack of respect for individual identity. It does not respect the identity of either teacher or student. Our education is still in the cold war era where the goal of education was to socialize and indoctrinate people. Nowadays, everyone should be allowed to develop their skills and ideas as freely as possible. This cannot be achieved in a country where all students are obliged to wear the same uniform and have the same haircut.

The problems that occur in Thailand, in education, Thai politics or whatever, do not come from out of the ground, but come from a culture that obstructs us from having different ideas and closes people’s mouths. It divides people on everything including age, gender, and education. This kind of culture will stop people from questioning the government. In the end, when it has no intellectual basis, people will live in superstition, not in reality.