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Thai schoolgirl challenges military regime

Nattanan Warintarawet, who caused a stir by objecting to the junta-imposed curriculum, calls for critical thinking and democracy in hierarchical society

24.07.2015
Thai schoolgirl challenges military regime

By Max Constant

BANGKOK (AA) - A 17-year-old schoolgirl is causing a stir in Thailand by challenging the edicts of the junta, which seized power in the kingdom in May last year.

Emblematic of a small but resolute new generation of politically aware teenagers, Nattanan Warintarawet is advocating “critical thinking” and democracy to counter the stifling moral values imposed by the military regime.

While seated for an exam earlier this week on the “12 national values” inserted into the curriculum by the junta soon after last year’s coup, Warintarawet decided to hand back a blank sheet of paper whose emptiness exhibited her disapproval of the subject.

The “12 national values”, the brainchild of junta chief-cum Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, include “practice the royal teaching”, “gratitude to your parents with all your heart” and “do not lack in morality and religion”. School children are required to recite the tenets daily.

From her external appearance, nothing distinguishes the youthful Warintarawet from other quiet schoolgirls enrolled in the notoriously paternalistic Thai school system.

But once the articulate teenager begins to speak, it becomes clear she is not the kind of person to conform submissively to a system where the words of “elders” -- be they teachers or the country’s leaders -- are deemed inherently paramount.

Such an opinion, however forceful it appears in a country with a rigid social hierarchy, would not have moved many if the outspoken student’s views had not been translated into her daring move -- which has won her both praise and criticism.

“We had to write a kind of recitation about nationalism, royalism and religion, like writing the lyrics of a song. We are asked to believe in these values without thinking about their correctness,” Warintarawet said of the exam. “I thought the subject is against critical thinking.”

The teenager did not sit back after the initial act of rebellion, but rather followed it up by writing an open letter to none other than Chan-ocha to explain the purpose behind her gesture.

“The Civic Duty subject is nothing but a form of propaganda: it forces only one set of ‘true’ values down the students’ throats, promotes intolerance toward criticisms against the government, and condemns free speech as unnecessary,” she wrote.

Her critical thinking skills did not go unnoticed -- earning her a summons by a school administrator inquiring about her behavior.

A few days later, a Thai newspaper quoted an unnamed school official describing Warintarawet as “mentally ill”.

“The teachers who are against me don’t attack me directly,” she said Friday.

“But I don’t know what they do behind the scene,” she added, while insisting that some teachers have shown her moral support.

This week’s exam was not the first incident where the teenager questioned authority.

Last January, Warintarawet had been among two students selected to participate in a TV program about the future of Thailand alongside Thienchay Kirinandana, the chairman of the National Reform Committee, a junta-appointed assembly tasked with reforming the political system.

Just before the program began recording, according to Warintarawet, she had been chatting with Kirinandana, who told her how devoted his Committee was to eradicating corruption from Thailand.

The schoolgirl quipped: “Don’t you consider the way you received power as a form of corruption?”

After a few more sharp exchanges, Kiranandana reportedly asked the TV staff to exclude Warintarawet from the program.

Warintarawet credits the liberal atmosphere prevailing in her family as well as her contacts with foreign teachers -- who she says value intellectual exchanges and creativity -- for her interest in politics and education.

“With Thai teachers, you cannot speak about things which are ‘out of the subject’,” she laments.

The teenager also expresses her concern over the state of affairs in Thailand.

“Things are getting quite serious now. The economy is declining and freedom of expression is taken away bit by bit,” she said. “A lot of people think the junta came to power to solve the problem, without thinking that the military themselves are part of the problem.”

The youth nonetheless still maintains hope for improvement in the future, as “more people begin to realize, we still need democracy”.

“If I would not hold any hope for my country, I would just finish my studies and go abroad,” she told Anadolu Agency.

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