Thai students seeking reforms debate education minister

Round 2 of a dialogue between Thailand’s education minister and high school students seeking radical reforms has taken place with a robust though mostly polite exchange of views but no resolution

BANGKOK -- Round 2 of a dialogue between Thailand’s education minister and high school students seeking radical reforms took place Saturday, with a robust though mostly polite exchange of views but no resolution.

What had been billed by the students as a debate with Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan was a rare example of an open conversation between a senior politician and the younger generation that is not seen much in Thai society.

The students, who have dubbed their group Bad Students in self-mocking humor, are demanding an end to harassment for their activities, abolition of outmoded draconian regulations and total reform of the educational system. If Nataphol cannot get this done, they say, he should resign.

The two sides first engaged on Aug. 19, when about 400 students gathered outside the ministry to voice their pent-up frustrations with the country’s hide-bound educational system, complaining about everything from the dress and grooming code to the curriculum to disciplinary procedures.

The students were emboldened to act by a wave of aggressive protesting being carried out by college students against the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, which they feel came to power undemocratically. The government is struggling to placate them.

When Nataphol came out to speak with them on Aug. 19, the students were anything but awed, treating him as their own wayward pupil and jeering him.

Despite the rude reception, he wrote afterward on Facebook that he understood their concerns, which he said were in line with his plans for reform. He agreed to attend a second gathering at the same venue even though though the students made clear they would grill him.

After a series of student speeches and skits, Nathapol took the stage Saturday with 12th grade student Laponpat Wangpaisit as his protagonist.

Laponpat pointed out the Education Ministry’s failure to force schools to comply with its earlier orders to allow freedom of political expression and end arbitrary punishments for violations of the dress and grooming codes.

He also charged that the ministry fails to protect students from sexual predators and overlooks the use of banned physical punishments by some teachers and administrators.

“What you said, I could just not do it,” said Nataphol, whose remarks still drew occasional jeers. “But today I am ready to listen. I am ready to implement reasonable suggestions."

He said he accepts that many things needed improving, but pushed back against some points, such as dropping uniforms. He said he would resign if he thought he was no longer useful, but believed that was not yet the case.

Before he left the stage, the students presented him with a tongue-in-cheek gift of standard textbooks with a cane on top. “I hope we don’t have to see these books and the cane in our education system any longer,” the presenter told him.

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Associated Press videojournalist Jerry Harmer contributed to this report.