NONG KHAI — Police visited a school in Nong Khai on Thursday after an annual teacher appreciation day turned into a viral political stunt critiquing junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha.
Five Grade 12 students at Chumpholphonphisai School yesterday creatively adapted flower arrangements on trays that are traditionally offered to teachers to wai khru, in order to critique Prayuth’s appointment as prime minister for a second term.
In addition to the usual flowers, one tray depicted an imbalanced scale with cardboard signs saying “millions of votes” on the lighter side and “250 votes” on the heavier side – referring to the junta-appointed senate and their unanimous voting last week in favour of Prayuth’s bid for the top job. Another tray depicts figurines of armed soldiers and monsters surrounding Democracy Monument.
While teachers apparently appreciated the political twist on tradition, the police were not pleased. Both the students and their unnamed social studies teacher were promptly visited by the police the same afternoon.
“Officers were sent to the school, but it was only an ordinary checkup as we found the offering trays interesting,” said superintendent Police Col. Puwis Siriphanich of Phon Phisai police station. “We did not order or intimidate students to delete the photos. We respect their rights.”
The director of Chumpholphonphisai School Pipat Srisookpant initially insisted that officers on Thursday requested for photos of the trays posted online to be removed.
“Officers asked that the photos be removed from all social media and the students complied,” Pipat said. “I gave students the advice that they are too young to be involved in politics.”
However, Pipat later backed down on Friday as the story circulated, claiming that students did not originally intend the tray with a scale to be imbalanced.
“They wanted to show that the senators are the representatives of millions of Thais bound together by the constitution,” Pipat told a Khaosod reporter. “The photos that came out appeared to show a tilting scale because they were taken from the side and the glue that held the model together was dried out.”
Deputy junta chairman Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan then came forward on Friday with the allegation that the students did not act on their own initiative.
“I believe there is someone behind this. How could the kids come up with this idea by themselves?” Prawit said. “I don’t know who they are. We have to investigate first, but we also have to respect their freedom of expression.”
In response to the rapid attention from the authorities, the students behind the political flower offerings defended their actions and insisted they had designed them independently.
“We are not trying to disrespect the Democracy Monument,” one of the five students said. “We intend to promote democracy. The scale-like tray represents the imbalance between the votes of citizens and the senate in the selection of the prime minister. No one told us to do this.”
Over the years, wai khru ceremonies at the beginning of the Thai school year have offered opportunities for students to get creative with pop-culture and political references.
Political trays were common across the country this year, with trending photos showing trays with the three-finger salute, Uncle Tuu with marvel villain Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet, and a box depicting ballot discrepancies.
The original photos of these flower arrangements have since been taken down from social media, though Chumpholphonphisai School appears to be the only school to have been visited by authorities at the time of publication.
The rapid intervention by authorities into student activities drew equally immediate flak from anti-junta politicians including Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
“The Future Forward Party will motion against those involved in this case once the next parliamentary session opens,” Thanathorn said in a Facebook post on Thursday. “Those responsible will have to explain why this kind of incident is happening in a democratic society.”
“You kids are only Mathayom 6 graders, while Uncle has Section 44 in his hand. What else can you do?” chimed in Pheu Thai Party MP Wan Ubumrung in a Facebook Live on Thursday.
In contrast, former Democrat Party MP Warong Dechgitvigrom took to Facebook to argue that parents should protect their children from being brainwashed by the pro-democracy movement.
“I ask parents to exchange thoughts with your children because they can be easily mislead,” read Warong’s post. “Children are optimistic and can be indoctrinated by democracy.”
Army spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree claimed on Friday that the army did not issue orders on the flower offerings and that no soldiers were sent to education institutions.
This story was updated after Pipat spoke to reporters on Friday morning.