Student activism

Students’ ‘haircut revolt’ opens democratic space discussion in Thailand

As student-led protests blossom on the streets of Bangkok, inside the classroom a younger cohort of high-school activists are becoming increasingly vocal against what they say is the kingdom's strong-handed approach to education

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July 23, 2020
Students’ ‘haircut revolt’ opens democratic space discussion in Thailand
A student wears a face shield while observing social distancing as they line up to attend classes in a school in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat on July 1. Photo: Madaree Tohlala/AFP

As the frustrations of young Thais chafing against military influence boil over in the streets of Bangkok in recent pro-democracy, student-led protests, an even younger contingent is making its own demands for personal freedom in high-school classrooms.

Introduced under military rule nearly half a century ago, hairstyle regulations – and harsh punishments for violations – stand as an emblem of the strict obedience demanded of students in a public education system tinged with martial style. A recent pushback among students on the issue of hair, however, is being touted as a sign of Thailand’s schools evolving as more democratic spaces, challenging the values advocated for in Thailand’s military-influenced education system.

In May, the Ministry of Education revised regulations on hairstyles to allow for longer hair length among students in government high schools, as long as it remains “neat and tidy”. It was labelled a “victory for individualism” by some, but as Covid-19 social distancing measures eased and schools re-opened on July 1, stories of teachers cutting the hair of students testing the limits of more relaxed regulations surfaced, provoking ire among activists. 

Laponpat Wangpaisit is an 18-year-old student activist and representative of Bad Student, a high-school student-run group founded in May that has used social media to help spread the message of student rights violations throughout Thailand, including on the issue of hairstyles. He told the Globe the debate extends beyond just hair and represents a greater issue of student rights.  

“Hairstyles are not important enough to force upon students. It’s just strands of hair that grow from your scalp,” Laponpat said. “The importance of this topic, however, is when schools have regulations on it. Hair is part of the students’ bodies and when something is done to the students’ bodies it becomes a violation of our human rights.” 

Similar to student organisations behind recent pro-democracy protests such as the Free Youth group, Bad Student publicly advocates for the removal of many of the Kingdom’s entrenched hierarchical traditions – traditions that young Thais are increasingly saying detract from the Kingdom’s democratic space. 

Having gained media attention, Bad Student has participated in meetings with the Parliament’s Educational Commission and Ministry of Education to voice their concerns, raise examples of punishment that have violated the rights of students and push for policy change. The group supports students that want to voice their political opinions and is against the harassment of those for doing so. 

They are among a growing cohort of emboldened students highlighting what they perceive to be the oppressive nature of Thailand’s education system. Fellow student group Education for Liberation Siam have held an exhibition called Education Kills Me at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre twice in recent years reflecting on the struggles of Thai students, with the group also jointly establishing the Association of Youth for the Abolition of Student Haircut Rules – a movement which said it has filed an administrative case labelling the haircut regulations as unconstitutional.

In 1972, Premier Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, then prime minister of a military government, implemented the initial regulation on hairstyle in Thai student uniform. Male students had to maintain military-style buzz cuts and female students could have bobs that did not go beyond the bottom of their earlobes. 

Now, 48 years later, the hairstyle regulation and remnants of the military influence on the country’s educational institutions remain with only minimal reform. 

Students observe social distancing in a classroom at the Makkasan Phitthaya government secondary school in Bangkok on July 1. Photo: Romeo Gacad/AFP

Prasai Jhetson, a social studies teacher at Bangpakok Witthayakom School in the capital, explained the hairstyle requirement is a physical manifestation of discipline, but overlooks other important aspects of student development. This stringent regulation reflects wider issues in the education system, Prasai added.

“The hairstyle issue reflects that schools do not pay sufficient attention to what it means to genuinely promote discipline in students,” he said. 

The latest version of the regulations – which still bans perms, bleached hair and facial hair – states in the opening statement that there is an intention to “protect the human dignity” of students, but ambiguity and different interpretations of the revisions have already led to conflict. 

If we believe that education is an important process to develop the potential of youth and help them grow to become good citizens, an important thing that we must cultivate in students is the recognition of human rights

The most recent controversy was a 15-year-old female student who was punished by having her hair forcibly cut off in public earlier this month by the teacher in northeastern Thailand’s Si Sa Ket province, one of several cases of teachers harshly punishing perceived hair violations as students returned for the new school term. The pupil’s mother said the teacher intended to humiliate her daughter, with the Ministry since issuing a statement that it is no longer acceptable to lop off students’ hair. A school official said the teacher has since apologised to the student and her family.

Nattameth Dulkanit, an educational supervisor at the Ministry of Education’s Office of the Basic Education Commission, said students are now quick to voice their concerns if they believe schools are failing to respect the spirit of the revised rules. 

“If students notice discrepancies, and they know they have the right to call for change in this aspect, because it is described in the regulation. They use this channel to demand for their rights to be respected,” Natthameth said.  

He added that Thai schools have long-held a firm hierarchy, with many practitioners reluctant to change their ways despite the new regulations, saying this reflected “authoritarian sentiment” among individuals in the education system, as well as structural issues. 

“We have to raise the question about how much knowledge teachers in Thailand have received about human rights before they graduate to become teachers,” Natthameth stressed. “If we believe that education is an important process to develop the potential of youth and help them grow to become good citizens in the future, an important thing that we must cultivate in students is the recognition of human rights so that they grow into adults that recognise and respect the rights of others.”   

Pornpat Ampornphute, a high-school teacher at a government school in Bangkok, welcomed the pushback and said teachers would be well-placed to reflect on their attitudes towards students. 

“This beginning of calling for the respecting of students’ rights may be a good opportunity for teachers to reflect on their behaviour and evaluate if their current behaviour violates the rights of others, as well as if there are alternative methods that can help students achieve their potential,” he said. 

Pornpat added that the debate surrounding student hairstyles debate is a sign of Thailand’s changing values and attitudes. “Hairstyles have become an important subject because schools are transforming to become a more democratic space,” he said. 

For student representative Laponpat, he is looking forward to the day when students’ hairstyles can be a reflection of the individual choices, not the authority of educators or the institutions they represent.  

“Hairstyles are not a topic that we have to be serious about or enforce,” he said. “I want it to be cancelled and let students finally have freedom in choosing their own hairstyles.”

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