“We have already seen the light”: student activists vow to fight on despite harassment

Representatives of four high school student activist groups tell stories of the harassment and legal prosecution they now face after speaking out about human rights violations they face in school, reiterating that the right to freedom of expression is a constitutional right, while vowing to keep fighting nonetheless.

From left: Kunthida Rungruengkiat, Tanatda Keawsuksri, Itsara Wongtahan, Napawn Somsak, Laphonpat Wangpaisit, and Pranom Somwong

On 17 December 2020, Protection International, Law Long Beach, and the four student activist groups Bad Student, the People’s Revolution for Equality and Democracy (PRED), the Lanna Student Coalition, and the Maha Sarakham Students Alliance, organised a panel discussion “When Children Defend Human Rights: Thailand’s Response?” at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT).

On the panel was Laphonpat Wangpaisit from the Bad Student group, Tanatda Keawsuksri from the People’s Revolution for Equality and Democracy group (PRED), Napawn Somsak from the Coalition of Lanna Students, Itsara Wongtahan from the Mahasarakham Students Group, and Kunthida Rungruengkiat from the Progressive Movement. The panel was moderated by Pranom Somwong from Protection International.

The price of speaking out

High school students are now leading campaigns challenging authoritarianism in schools, questioning mandatory uniform and haircut requirements, and protesting against harassment and sexual assault. Students have taken to the streets to call for the reform of the entire educational system. But their actions have instead been met with intimidation and harassment by both school personnel and state officials.

Pranom noted that at least five people aged under 18 have been charged with sedition and violating the Emergency Decree, while at least one is facing charges under Section 112, or the lèse majesté law. Other forms of abuse range from having police officers visit them at home to teachers giving their personal information to the police and being suspended from school.

Itsara said that student activists in the northeastern region have been threatened with legal prosecution, and that police officers often come into schools during demonstrations dressed in school uniforms and take pictures of students. Others have been disowned by their families or had their allowances cut for joining protests.

Itsara said that schools should be a safe space for students to express their opinions, and that they are speaking out because of the injustices they are facing, but the adults around them are refusing to listen and telling them to stop speaking as it would ruin the school’s reputation, even though the authorities only need to listen to the students for these events to not happen.

In the case of the Lanna Student Coalition, Napawn said that police officers took pictures of students during the first protest they organised, and that officers went to schools to ask for the students’ personal information, something which teachers then used to intimidate students without recognizing that it is within the students’ legal rights to protest for their rights and freedoms.

She said that her organization was informed that the police have obtained information on at least 17 people in the group, and that all 17 have had police and military officers visit them at home. Napawn herself has had officers visiting her mother at work, and many of her friends said they have been visited by police officers, who sometimes asked them to send pictures to confirm that they really are at school, which she said is a severe violation of the students’ privacy.

From left: Tanatda, Itsara, and Napawn

Both Itsara and Napawn also said that they face degrees of online sexual harassment as young women speaking out and joining protests. Napawn said that, as she becomes better known after she began leading protests, her picture has been posted on social media and that there have been comments which amounts to body shaming and sexual harassment, which she said is something that happens not only to protest leaders but to most public figures.

Itsara said that after she gave a speech on the legalization of sex work, her name and school were shared on Facebook groups. People were trying to find out who she is, and people on social media were putting sexual comments on her pictures, criticising her appearance and making her feel like she has been made into a sex object.

“Why is it that when you are a girl and a student, why is this the price we have to pay? People who were abusing me are people who look like moral people. They have pictures of themselves making merit on their Facebook pages, but on social media, you’re instead spread rumours about me using vulgar language, which I could even legally sue you for. So this is a contradiction that they do, a contradiction in itself, and they have never looked back at themselves whether the things they did were right, or whether it is something they should do to a young person who is not yet 18, who is still in a student uniform,” said Itsara. 

“Some adults think that children are children, and so they must not be allowed to talk about sex, they must not be allowed to talk about sexuality or about anything that is not their business, even though we can be interested in anything, not just about education.”

Meanwhile, Tanatda said that the south is a very conservative region, making activism difficult. She said that she herself has had officers visiting her family home, even though she currently does not live there, and even visiting her school.

Tanatda said that there are at least 50 recorded recent cases of activists being harassed in the south, and that there are likely many more that cannot be recorded because the victims are too scared to speak out. She also said that in the 3 deep south provinces, which are still under martial law and a state of emergency, young people face many restrictions to their activism, and that they face stronger pressure from the state and from their schools to stop speaking out than anywhere else.

She said that she is just a student who wants change, but no one is helping her when she faces harassment, and questions why students who are facing harassment don’t go to state agencies or other organizations like UNICEF, but instead come to organizations like PRED.

Read more about recent high school student protests: 

Similarly, Laphonpat said that the Bad Student group receives over 10 complaints of harassment a day, and that they have recorded over 1000 cases so far. He himself faces charges for violating the Emergency Decree after he joined the protest at the ratchaprasong intersection on 15 October, which took place during a ban on political gatherings under the severe state of emergency declared in Bangkok in the early morning of 15 October before the crackdown on the protest at Government House. At the time the summons was issued, he was not yet 18 years old.

He said that, when the group first started, they brought these issues to state agencies, but found that these agencies cannot solve the issues, so they had to organize protests and found that efforts to resolve these issues started only after they held protests. He said that the Bad Student group have filed several complaints with the Ministry of Education , but their demands were not taken seriously, as the Education Minister tends to thinks that the students’ protests are backed by someone else, or that the students are not capable of organizing such large protests themselves.

Laphonpat said that the Ministry has set up a committee to handle the students’ demands, but it has changed nothing as those who sit on the committee still vote to keep things the same way. Not only that, students also did not get to participate in these meetings, which directly affect them, and they were only invited to join the meetings when it was reported that the MOE did not have student representatives on the committee. The MOE also refused to broadcast the meetings as the group requested, or to open up the meetings for any student who would like to join. 

Students’ rights must be protected

A box was place in front of the room during the panel discussion for suggestions from attendees of what UNICEF should do to protect young human rights defenders. 

In 1992, Thailand ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which states that children have the right to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Pranom said that this begs the question whether either the Thai government or organisations like UNICEF, which has the obligation to protect children’s rights, have complied with their international human rights obligations.

She said that, until now, UNICEF has only issued a press release, and called on the organization to seriously uphold the rights of the child and demand that a state party like Thailand stop such harassment immediately.

Meanwhile, Kunthida said that she herself and the Progressive Movement have received complaints from students who faced disciplinary actions for expressing themselves or organizing activities, such as wearing white ribbons to school.

Forms of punishment included not being allowed to take examinations, having their test scores reduced, or being deprived of rights in schools, and these punishments are not allowed by the Ministry of Education (MOE). She also said that schools have been allowing outsiders, such as police officers, to come onto campus and harass students, taking their photos, or visiting them at home.

She said that the Ministry once issued a circular notice telling schools that students are allowed to express their opinion, but did not issue any further concrete measures while students continue to be harassed by both teachers and state officials.

“What is happening to these young people, to these students right now, it can be said that the Ministry of Education has not done its job well enough. It is clear that using just a circular is not enough to protect the rights of the students under their responsibility,” said Kunthida.

Kunthida (front) 

Kunthida called for the authorities to effectively enforce the Child Protection Act since the Constitution clearly upholds the right of the child to freedom of expression. She said that actions like holding up blank pieces of paper or wearing white ribbons are not illegal but are acts of peaceful assembly, and no one should face disciplinary action for participating in such activities.

She said that the MOE has no mechanism in place to take and track complaints from students, and so they are unable to report the number of cases of harassment, and since the students on the panel have said that they do not trust the MOE to solve their issues, the MOE needs to show accountability as an organization directly responsible for students and educational personnel to regain their trust.

Kunthida proposed that students should try to come together to draft their own national education bill, since previous national education acts have been drafted by groups of other people which did not include students. She said that she would like there to be a national education bill that is drafted with the students’ contribution, as they are directly affected by this law.

“We have already seen that light”

The panel reads one of the suggestions from the box

Despite facing harassment and other obstacles, the students said that they will still continue fighting.

Tanatda said that, even though they are young and have not been fighting for that long, she believes everyone already knows what the problems are and is ready to keep going. She sees the threats they are facing as motivation to keep going and as lessons teaching them how to move forward carefully and efficiently.

“We see the light at the end of the tunnel that is getting brighter. Even though we are still in the tunnel or in a dark room, we have already seen that light, and we will make every effort to try to climb up to seek that light,” said Tanatda.  

Napawn, who is facing intimidation and police surveillance herself, said she is very angry and that she doesn’t understand why police officers are harassing students. However, she said that they are going to keep fighting even though the fight might not end in their generation.

“I see that if they’re not stopping, then we’re not stopping either,” Napawn said. “Right now, there are many student organisations which have been formed. On this stage, we have four organizations from every region. I think that, in the future, we might not be as active sometimes, but I believe that there are many other students, many other generations of young people who are ready to fight, and if they don’t stop, we don’t stop. I believe that time will be on our side.”

Laphonpat said that he is prepared for any errors, and that failure can happen every day. He said that what they can do as citizens to keep speaking out about the problems they are facing, but whether they are successful or not also depends on whether the state will act on their demands. However, he said that he believes they will be successful someday, as he believes there are future generations who will continue their fight.

“Even if it’s not successful today, tomorrow, or this year or next year or whenever, I believe that one day it has to be successful, because we have already seen that every day, we have many high school students who are fighting, so in the future, I would probably get to see high school students rising up and fight as well. So even if we don’t win this fight, there will probably be the next generation who are going to fight until one day we are successful, because there probably isn’t anyone who can tolerate being in the authoritarian system that has oppressed us this long,” said Laphonpat.

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