By Petcharee Somwong
On 19 August, I was at the Ministry of Education to observe the protest by “Bad Student.” They are a collective of high school students demanding education reform and an end to harassment by teachers and school authorities, which they call “school fascism.”
I had mixed feelings toward the scene. I was astonished and impressed. I felt like my hope for changes in Thailand was restored. However, there’s also a part of me that felt ashamed.
I’m 19 years old, from a middle-class family, and a student at Chulalongkorn University. I graduated from high school a year prior. However, back then, when I faced oppressive rules in school and injustices in society, I would only softly complain. No calling out the wrongs. No standing up against those who abuse their power. Nothing like what high school students are doing right now.
I didn’t have a strong awareness of my rights as a student and as an individual. I didn’t believe it’s essential to speak up even if you’re a minor. Most importantly, I didn’t have that same courage as they do.
My previous ignorance might result from what my middle-class family keeps telling me: the only thing I have to do as a student is to focus on studying.
I am told to achieve good grades and get into a top-ranked university in Thailand. My mother believes this is the only way to succeed in this highly competitive society where people of middle socioeconomic status must focus all our efforts toward first, a good degree, then making money.
When it comes to politics, the mindset among many middle-class families is this: no matter who becomes prime minister or what the government does, we can’t affect any change and should thus pay attention only to studying, working, and earning money.
Moreover, in Thai society, there’s a price to pay for expressing pro-democracy and anti-establishment voices. My mother is afraid that the family will get into trouble with the authorities if I’m too politically active. Also, prospective employers may not take kindly to my political stance.
As I look at what’s going on in our society, I see injustice as Thailand’s reality and the culture of double-standard, privilege, and hierarchy that force us to live in apathy and fear.
We live in a culture of fear where Thailand’s middle class treads so carefully. Afraid to lose jobs, to lose money, and to not be able to advance in life. Within this culture, many parents guide their children to understand three things: money, apathy, and fear.
This is the reality that we face. It would, therefore, be shameful of me to stay ignorant and indifferent.
I told my mother that I want to do my part in standing up for justice and that I believe in my generation’s power. Unsurprisingly, she disapproved and warned me not to join what she called “a riot.”
Though she fully acknowledges that today’s society isn’t democratic, she believes that it is not our responsibility to get involved. After all, we still have a “decent” life, so don’t risk what we have. I dare say that many middle-class parents have this way of thinking.
We surrender to apathy. Many middle-class people choose to appear “neutral” because fear has taught us to bow our heads to injustice. We know there’s an injustice because it’s the very reason why we keep our eyes close and our mouths shut. We know the government would come after us if we don’t, just as they are doing to activists and protest leaders.
We are willing to turn a blind eye to corruption, abuse of power, and violations of people’s rights, as long as we can keep making money and have a “decent” life. Little do we realize that the system of democratic governance would provide us a better opportunity to make an even better life.
But the protestors have courage. They live under the same climate of fear as with everyone else. Yet, they stand up against injustices.
Many middle-class parents would say to the student protestors, “Focus on your study. Protesting won’t help you get a job in the future.”
But what I see is that life isn’t just about making money. How does one remain “neutral” when people are harassed, abducted, and made to disappear?
My question to the middle-class parents out there is: Do you remember, before you taught us about studying hard and making money, you first taught us about courage, honesty, and justice?