Children and young people across Thailand are taking a risk by standing up for their rights and leading mass protests, despite a ruthless crackdown by the authorities. At least 286 children have been targeted with criminal and civil charges for their peaceful activism in the past two years. Despite the alarming repression, there’s a movement of determined young people who won’t give up.
Here, 18-year-old Anna reveals the battles she faces as a young human rights activist…
Growing up, I struggled with Thailand’s strict education system. As a girl going to high school, my hair had to be a certain length. I wasn’t allowed to colour my hair and my socks had to be a certain height. Living in a middle-class household, expectations were high. I studied seven days a week so I could attend a good school and go to university.
Why couldn’t we have a fair election, I wondered?
It was frustrating to adhere to so many rules and regulations from a young age and it made me want to change things. When I was 11, the news was flooded with activists calling for a democratic election as we were under a coup. Why couldn’t we have a fair election, I wondered?
By the time I reached high school, a military government was in place and censorship was rife. Determined to make a difference, I joined a youth group. “Bad Students” started in 2020, as a place to talk about student rights and support kids experiencing difficulties. Now we are campaigning for change, creating a book on how to survive high school and calling for human rights education to be included in the school curriculum.
If students are feeling helpless or frustrated with their situation at school, the group provides a safe space to share their feelings in person or online. From there we advise them on where to seek support. In cases involving violence, we contact the Ministry of Education or an NGO. Students deserve to enjoy human rights, rather than be at risk of abuse. There are few protections in place for children at school and it’s our responsibility to help them where we can.
One student told us how their teacher cut their hair in front of everyone, embarrassing the child in front of their peers. For some, the consequences and shame of being unable to adhere to the school’s strict standards have been so traumatic that they have committed suicide.
In total, three children have committed suicide this year because of how they’ve been treated within the school system.
These excessive and scary rules are down to the military, as well as the Thai school system. I understand the importance of a uniform, but it’s gone too far. If it’s cold, students aren’t allowed to wear a coat, while others can’t afford uniforms. And if students fail to meet these standards, punishments are harsh.
In total, three children have committed suicide this year because of how they’ve been treated within the school system. It’s so sad. In protest, a 15-year-old girl decided to take a stand and dye her hair in honour of another student who committed suicide after being shamed and punished by their school for failing to conform with school regulations on haircut. She was expelled. So many students have no hope as school is a scary place.
Targeted by authorities
I’ve been one of the lucky ones. As I was an activist and vocal about the situation, teachers just left me alone. And while some teachers fear our work, others have supported us, asking how they can be better teachers and encourage more children in class. Still, I often felt pressure to spend days and nights studying hard when I’m not pursuing my activism because I don’t want to let my family down.
At the end of the day, I am just a teenager and it’s scary to live my life this way.
I’ve experienced many of these difficulties first-hand – I’ve been forced to cut my hair. I’ve been targeted by authorities and harassed by police for my work as an educational activist. I’ve been arrested, detained and placed on a watchlist, where authorities now follow me to school and wait outside my apartment. I’ve been deemed a security threat because I have dared use my voice. They even have a file on me and my family. At the end of the day, I am just a teenager and it’s scary to live my life this way.
I try not let my fear get the better of me and I seek support from NGOs, such as Amnesty International, where possible. In fact, earlier this year, I was invited to Vienna and Geneva to meet other young human rights defenders and share what life is like in Thailand. It was great to meet other student activists who also face risks every day, but it was challenging to share the problems I face as life is so different for us.
Accepting my activism
It’s been difficult for my parents to accept my activism. They’re slowly starting to support me a little bit more, but I wouldn’t say they’re proud of me yet. I’ve chosen a different route.
There’s nothing that can stop me standing up for my rights.
Standing up for your rights in Thailand is hard and there’s little protection in place for activists. I’ve heard stories of political activists who mysteriously disappeared when they were in exile. Then one day they were found to have been encased in concrete and drowned in a river – I don’t want to meet the same fate. Still, there’s nothing that can stop me standing up for my rights.
Moving forward, the best hope for young people is a new government. It’s hard to keep up the fight when change is so slow, but I am determined to finish my law degree so I can work for a human rights organisation like Amnesty International – they have been pivotal in my work as a young human rights defender and I’d like to be able provide the same support to others one day.