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Turbulent Thailand

Thailand's young protesters turn backs on royal motorcade

Bad Students wrap Democracy Monument in white shroud and graffiti

Pro-democracy protesters flashed three-finger protest salutes as a royal motorcade with King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida passed behind them at Democracy Monument on Saturday afternoon.    © AP

BANGKOK -- Hundreds of youth-led protesters including high school students turned their backs on a royal motorcade carrying King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida as it passed Democracy Monument at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.

The participants stood with their hands raised in three-finger salutes, and many sang the national anthem, which the rally's organizers were playing loudly.

The youngsters refrained from holding up derogatory banners as the convoy passed. The royal couple was out inaugurating a new subway station in another part of town, where they were greeted by royalists.

Some informal surveys during the protest suggested that the protesters believe reform of the monarchy to be the highest priority -- ahead of amending the constitution and sacking Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha along with his cabinet.

The students later daubed graffiti on a massive white tarp, which was then used to shroud Democracy Monument.

The large pumpkin-shaped triumphalist edifice dates from the 1930s, and was erected as a monument to the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932. It has been the focus of countless political rallies over the decades. In October 1973, a coffin containing the corpse of a student killed by the military was hauled atop it.

Saturday's rally began earlier in the afternoon outside the education ministry, and was organized by the Bad Students group, which has a following of over 100,000 on social media. The high school students arrived at the ministry with a coffin for Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan.

Laponpat Wangpaisit, 18, the founder of Bad Students, told Nikkei Asia that the group has become fully aligned with older student groups. "We think that every problem can be solved if we can amend the big rule -- the constitution." He said. "That's why we have escalated our demands."

 

 Protesters from the Bad Students high school group flash three-finger salutes from atop Democracy Monument after wrapping it up with a white tarp covered in graffiti demanding radical political reform.    © Reuters

Bad Students was founded in June by a group of high school students led by Laponpat. Initially, it was a response to what they regarded as authoritarian teachers and unreasonable school rules. Laponpat, who is currently being home-schooled, established the group on social media as a discussion platform for high school students aged 14 to 16.

Initial issues included long-standing gripes about uniforms, hair lengths and clean nails -- all of which are checked by teachers each morning. Thai society has also traditionally condoned strict disciplining of schoolchildren, including corporal punishment.

Social media has enabled youngsters to share opinions widely, and also provided a vehicle for exposing serious abuses, including gratuitous teacher brutality.

Female members of the Bad Students group, which has a following of over 100,000 high school students on social media, wearing white ribbons and flashing three-finger salutes.   © AP

On June 27, Bad Students staged a protest at Siam Square, a trendy shopping and restaurant area that has long been a magnet for youngsters. On that occasion, the focus was educational reform. There was another rally on Sept. 5 when hundreds turned up outside the education ministry, wearing white ribbons, snapping three-finger salutes, and demanding the resignation of the education minister.

"It's time to not just criticize the education system," Benjamaporn Nivas,16, a Bad Students' leader, told Nikkei. "We can criticize everything." From a Thai-Chinese family, Benjamaporn said she feels particularly oppressed by male-dominated society. "That raised questions in my mind and pushed me to fight against unfair rules."

Thayanee Jaroenkool,16, expressed similar sentiments. A student at the prestigious Triam Udom Suksa School, she was particularly incensed by hair regulations. "It is unacceptable," she told Nikkei. "The hair grows on my head, so my hairstyle should be up to me."

But things have gone well beyond hairstyles. "Now we think that just ousting the education minister is not the right solution," she said. "The right solution is to reform everything."

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