By The Nation
Those who fear the free expression of children also fear the future. Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan was among “respected elders” unnerved last week by the political views expressed in pedestals designed by high school students.
Students across the country, from northeastern Nong Khai province to Phitsanulok and southern Trang, were paying respect to their teachers by displaying independent thought in ceremonies to mark the start of the semester.
Traditionally, each student prepares a display of joss stick, candle and flowers, while each class creates a pedestal tray to place before their teacher.
This year, many of the pedestal trays drew their themes from political events – including the scandal over Prawit’s multimillion-baht luxury watch collection.
Students from Chumpol Phisai school in Nong Khai province took sarcastic aim at another political development, with the motif of a weighing-balance on which “250 Votes” on one side outweighed “Millions of Votes” on the other.
The pedestal obviously referred to the recent prime ministerial election, in which 250 junta-appointed Senators helped elect General Prayut Chan-o-cha to the top government post against the wishes of millions of civilian voters.
This was politics as per usual – seen on a daily basis ever since a military coup toppled an elected government in 2014. Yet authorities took offence at the notion that students would offer free comment on everyday reality. After photos of the pedestal tray spread on social media, police from Phon Phisai station in Nong Khai province visited the school and ordered the students to delete every picture shared online.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit claimed the high school students were tools of a conspiracy among adults who were exploiting the occasion for political gain.
“Teenagers could not express ideas about political developments in this way by themselves. They have must have been brainwashed, perhaps by teachers spiteful about the new [ministerial] portfolios,” he said.
Prawit’s reaction reflected a conviction, widespread among Thai adults, that children are incapable of thinking for themselves and must always follow the directions of adults. In fact, what the children had expressed was already in the public domain. Indeed, many of them would have had nothing to say had Prawit himself been clear and transparent about his assets and wealth. Nobody, meanwhile, would be expressing negative views about the junta had it accepted democratic norms instead of doing everything it could to perpetuate its power.
The junta’s actions over the past five years have been an embarrassment by any truly democratic standard, culminating in the selection of senators who then did their duty by helping General Prayut back into power.
Rather than seeking conspiracy theories behind legitimate criticism and free speech, powers-that-be should recognise that all citizens, young and old, have equal rights and freedoms in an open democratic society. People must be able to express their views on political developments and the future of the country.
Students will one day inherit the country; they are the future. As such, it is heartening to see them expressing concern over political setbacks that threaten the nation’s development. As long as the younger generation continues to question and criticise those in power, we remain hopeful of positive change – especially once this current crop of authoritarian leaders has gone. The future of our country lies in the hands of our children. Let’s support and nurture their independent thinking.