Thailand's "Bad Students" join protest movement

High school students in Thailand, fed up with what they see as draconian rules, are fighting back through a group called "Bad Student." But the members aren't just rebelling against authority — they're fighting for change and a better future, and some of their values align with the broader protest movement that has engulfed the nation.

It all started with the hair. In Thailand, it's mandatory for female students to wear an earlobe-length bob or a ponytail – and for males, a military-style crewcut. Teenagers who don't comply often meet the wrath of teachers who take matters into their own hands by cutting students' hair.

Frustrated by the situation, four high school students started an online petition for hairstyle freedom. That petition grew into an offline campaign dubbed "Bad Student."

Benjamaporn Nivas, 16, sat alone on the street. She tied herself to chair with her lips taped. A pair of scissors sat in her lap and a sign around her neck read: "This student violates school rules by growing her hair longer than her earlobes. She's destroying a long-held tradition in this country. You are welcome to punish her."

Passersby were taken aback by Benjamaporn's approach, and saddened by the reality she presented. She says forced haircuts are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems with Thailand's education system.

Benjamaporn is one of the figures at the forefront of the Bad Student movement. After her public protest, the group's online forum was flooded with stories of mistreatment in schools, including discrimination against gay students and violent physical punishments.

In another protest outside Thailand's Education Ministry, a member of Bad Student called on those in charge to modernize the curriculum, relax strict school rules, and provide an environment for gender equality.

Benjamaporn's haircut campaign
Benjamaporn Nivas is at the forefront of the Bad Student movement.

Benjamaporn and her friends support the broader protest movement that's also being led by young people, mainly in their 20s. They are calling for changes in government and reform of the monarchy. Benjamaporn sees a parallel between schools' abuse of power and the 2014 coup led by Thailand's current prime minister. "School is where dictatorship begins," she says.

Her outrage was sparked when she witnessed a police crackdown last month. At a demonstration outside Bangkok's Grand Palace, she screamed as police directed high-pressure water cannons at protesters. She was shocked to see authorities hurting people, and says she found the incident both disappointing and unnerving. It cemented a belief that education reform alone is no longer enough.

Young protesters
Many teenagers have joined the anti-establishment protests led by their so-called 'seniors' - people in their 20s.

Generation Gap

The student activism has created a split between generations. Parents and teachers, despite having experienced the same school system, find the protests disrespectful. Benjamaporn is one of many young people who have decided to leave the family home because political discussions turn into heated arguments.

"I don't want to go home to a fight every time, it's so mentally draining," she says.

Benjamaporn‘s mother says she knows this is more than just a phase, and is worried about her daughter putting pressure on the government or, worse, the monarchy – an institution revered by Thailand's older generation.

At a protest rally on November 21, Benjamaporn stunned the young crowd with an audacious demand for political change. "We demand a head of state subject to the rule of law and the constitution," she appealed. That challenge to the monarchy could be considered a punishable offence, but for the teenage activist it was a proud moment.

"I believe that what I do today, however small, will mark a page in history and pave the way for others to stand up and fight, too," she says.

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