Opinion: The students are reclaiming education in their march to freedom; it’s about time

Every day in Thai schools, students stand at attention before class to sing the national anthem and watch the raising of the flag. This week, in a show of defiance, during the national anthem and morning assembly, high school students all over the country raised their hands in the three-finger salute associated with anti-government and anti-junta protests.

Social media posts show that this has not always gone down well. Teachers have been seen slapping students, verballing abusing them and if reports are to be believed, also suspending the students.

But the tide of change seems overwhelming, even at Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s old school, a place that places pride on their dictatorial alumni with a large banner, students raised the three-finger salute until the banner was dropped by the school.

I cannot overstate how important this act of defiance is. When students become political, it allows them to fight for their dignity and their rights.

This is a revolution, not just to reform power or state oppression, but a revolution of the mind. The movement by the students today will invariably shape the high school and university experience that they reflect back on as adults. No longer will Thai youths be submissive and unquestioning, there has been a paradigm shift in the status quo and we have not even begun to see the repercussion.

This fight has gone beyond the dissatisfactions of today, beyond student haircuts, the teacher’s dictatorial power in a classroom, the lack of open spaces to discuss issues on campus, finally, students are having conversations about what it means to have an education and what they want out of their learning experience.

The movement has birthed creativity and questions, two things long lacking in the Thai education system.

Of course, the Minister of Education is not happy about this and has expressed some displeasure. Only with pushback by some allied teachers, some opposition MPs, and the students themselves did he finally relent and allow open spaces to discuss political events on campus and come out to talk to students at the high school protest rally yesterday.

Nelson Mandela once said that education was the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

But for many decades, in Thailand, education was used to build drones that were subservient to the Thai state. Education was used to train an unthinking, uncritical mass that was devoted to the status quo and security.

But it feels like for the first time in forever, Thai students are finally reclaiming that weapon for equality. And if Thai education has finally woken up, not because of some bureaucratic reform but because of the student’s demand for something better, then society will be all the better for it.

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