BANGKOK — Hundreds of school students in Bangkok on Tuesday ditched their uniforms in favor of casual outfits in solidarity with calls to reform the education system – prompting outrage from some school administrators.
Videos posted online show teachers and school officials banning students who participated in the uniform boycott from entering classrooms. Some were also seen berating the pupils for not complying with the tradition, which started under military autocrats back in the Cold War era.
“Get out, go home. We don’t need this. You don’t get to study. Look at the state of you,” said one teacher at all-girls Assumption Suksa School in a video. Dozens of students were reportedly barred from entering the school campus.
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“If you want to act according to rules from outside of the campus go ahead. But the school has our rules,” said the teacher at the privately-owned Catholic school. The [administrators] did not announce any rule changes …You’re submitting to outside influence.”
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Some other schools in Bangkok grounds also threatened students with disciplinary action for not wearing uniforms and closed the gates on those wearing casual outfits, known in Thai as “privates.”
A website run by student activist group Bad Students has real-time updates of complaints sent in by students.
As of publication time, the top-four schools with the most number of reported incidents were St. Joseph Convent School, Si Racha School, Assumption Convent School, and Suranari Witthaya School.
Dec. 1 marks the first day of semester for many campuses.
The campaign by students to put on the clothes of their own choice even got a response from the military. A Twitter account run by the 1st Army Area command proclaimed that only “0.1 percent” of students at Horwang School failed to show up in their uniforms, and that their parents were summoned for questioning.
Twitter users were left scratching their heads by the announcement.
“What’s the job of the military? We don’t even know if this is real or fake news. There’s no source. Did you do a survey in front of the school?” user thnunpron tweeted.
The bid to do away with school uniforms were spearheaded by Bad Students, who opposes school regulations seen as authoritarian and unnecessary. The activists put up banners saying “My nails, my hair, my body, my business. How come it’s the teachers’ burden?” at several landmarks in Bangkok on Monday, including Democracy Monument.
Most practices in Thai schools, namely dress codes and military-styled haircuts, were introduced under ruling juntas in the 1960s to instill patriotism and a sense of discipline. The regulations come under scrutiny in recent years from students who believe they represent a backward mentality.
But education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan, who has been the subject of ongoing student protests against the education system, wrote online on Monday night that he was still in favor of uniforms.
“School uniforms create equality. No matter where you’re from or your status, you are within that school’s rules and administration equally,” he wrote.
Despite the noise on social media, not every teacher and administrator is taking up arms against students who think differently.
Office of Basic Education Commission sec-gen Amporn Pinasa said Monday that students wearing non-uniform clothes to school were merely exercising their rights.
“I think all children have the ability to differentiate between right and wrong,” Amporn said. “If on the first day of term on Dec. 1, students wear non-uniform clothes, it’s not a big deal. But we must see what the students’ motivations are.”
He added, “I think that kids coming to school to learn is a good thing already.”
Udonpittayanukoon School, the main school of Udon Thani province, saw many students wearing casual clothes, with some even holding up the anti-government three-finger salute during the flag raising ceremony. School director Tawat Tommontri said he did not intervene.
“The more we ban it, the more it will become an issue that we might not be able to handle,” Tawat said. “They are all our children. We have to give them a chance, and listen to them.”
An administrator at Triam Udom School interviewed Tuesday morning said there would be no disciplinary action against students wearing casual outfits.
“Students can come to school,” he said. “Today’s the first day of term, so it’s their right.”
A Triam Udom high school student who wore her uniform to school today said that she agreed with diminishing the role of uniforms in education, but she was not confident enough to wear her own clothes today.
“One of the main reasons is the cost. From my head to my toes, all the belts and pins, it’s at least 2,000 baht,” the Matthayom 5 student from Triam Udom said.
Calls for education reforms appear to be intertwined with a wave of near-daily protests being carried out against the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, which many students feel came to power undemocratically.
The government is struggling to suppress the protests through promises of a compromise and legal retaliation.