Opinion: Our treatment of our young leaders is building a conformist society

General Prayut Chan-ocha and his military-backed government are jailing the country’s future leaders for their own benefit. There is no use denying it anymore. But in doing so they are jeopardizing our country’s future while protecting themselves from criticism.

The government has now detained at least 20 pro-democracy protest leaders and activists. Most have been charged with lese-majeste and denied bail or have had their bail revoked while waiting for trial.

Most of them are university students, including Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, 23, who is a historian and a political leader in the making.

He was the winner of the Petch Yod Mongkut national competition in history when he was a gifted high school student at the reputable Triam Udom Suksa school in 2015.

Now, he sits in a tiny jail cell with fellow inmates, imprisoned for more than two months and facing multiple seditions and lese-majeste charges which could result in decades of incarceration.

All of this just for arranging political rallies and daring to speak his mind.

Another university student with a bright future is Benjar “Preaw” Apun.

The 22-year-old is studying to become an aerospace engineer. Now, she is being incarcerated for making speeches.  

“Preaw is very smart, one of the smartest,” said Nattanon Dungsunenarn, a Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of a well-known space technology website, Spaceth.co.

“But she has traded in her dreams to highlight injustices in our society and tell us what needs fixing.”

Now she sits, rotting in jail. “Is the price of saying the truth always this high?” he asks.

The police and the Criminal Court are also looking to revoke Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul’s bail. She was one of BBC’s 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2020.

The government wants to put her back in jail for thinking differently and being brave enough to speak her mind in a society where thinking differently could see you jailed or worse.

Keep in mind, these jail sentences and arrests aren’t done to protect the public good, they are done to protect a weak and ineffective government.

Our young people are being arrested to paper over the government’s failure in reconciliation, their misuse of laws to silence political opposition and dissidents, their use of excessive force and their lack of dialogue with the protesters.

But at what point do you stop sandpapering our peaks to fill up our lowest valleys. Prayut has said himself that Thailand has a brain drain and that we need to educate better leaders and innovators.

What he fails to understand is that the best innovations come from disruptors who question the status quo.

His policies with our young leaders effectively muzzle their voice and teaches others that questioning orthodoxy has no place in Thai society, that speaking one’s mind will often land you in trouble.

It also teaches us that in order to succeed, it is better to put your head down, work hard, and not question the world around you.

When has a conformist ever changed the world? Ever invented a smart phone? Ever reached the edges of space? Ever made mind blowing mathematical discoveries?

Rarely. Maybe never.

We must encourage free thinking and free questioning even if the political consequences to an entrenched ruling class becomes more pronounced. Because that is how you build a society that innovates, that creates and young leaders that get us to where we want to go as a country.

Free them, free the shackles that bind our thinking, it’s the only option.

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