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The New Faces Of Political Activism In Thailand

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many high school students protest dress codes and rules about hair length. In Thailand, they become a protest of something bigger. Teenagers have added their voices to an opposition movement demanding the resignation of Thailand's military-backed government. They also want a new constitution and curbs on the monarchy. Michael Sullivan has a portrait of one of the new faces of political activism.

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MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: They call themselves Bad Students. And late last month, thousands gathered in central Bangkok to press their case in a firm but whimsical way.

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SULLIVAN: Some carried balloons colored to look like meteors and others dressed as dinosaurs looking fearfully skyward. Their message was clear - Thailand's aging tone-deaf rulers need to accept they're facing extinction.

BENJAMAPORN NIVAS: (Through interpreter) If they want to keep living in the cave, I'm fine with that. But don't ask me to stay in the cave with them.

SULLIVAN: That's Benjamaporn Nivas, a leader of the Bad Students, an exceedingly polite 16-year-old with owl-framed glasses, bobbed hair and bright yellow fingernails. Her group is demanding wholesale changes in the Thai education system, one, she says, stresses rote learning, conformity and blind obedience.

NIVAS: I'm not a sheep, I'm human.

SULLIVAN: But in the Thai system, she says, students aren't treated like humans but as chattel, brainwashed, she says, to be good citizens who respect the country, the religion and the monarchy.

NIVAS: (Through interpreter) In the Thai education system, we're not allowed to ask questions. We're taught to listen to our elders and do what they say. But for me, being a good citizen is more than that. It's having respect for people and for their rights.

SULLIVAN: When the Bad Students launched their campaign, their demands were education specific - no more uniforms, no more restrictions on hair length and a modern curriculum with textbooks that don't whitewash history, including the role of the monarchy.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in non-English language).

SULLIVAN: In August, after class, hundreds of students descended on the education minister's office, heckling him and demanding his resignation, even after he came out to listen to their grievances. And it was shortly after that, Benjamaporn says, that they realized their focus was too narrow and that they had to throw their lot in with the wider protest movement trying to bring down the government.

NIVAS: (Speaking Thai).

SULLIVAN: "That's when we realized that our voices would be stronger together," she says, "that the Education Ministry is just one part of a bigger, rotten system from the past that needs to be changed." She's been at the forefront of the larger demonstrations ever since, including a rally last month outside Parliament where five people were wounded by gunfire from unknown assailants.

NIVAS: (Through interpreter) I was there helping people who were tear gassed. I had to do something to protect people from the violence.

SULLIVAN: Police summoned the defiant, diminutive teen and another Bad Student leader for questioning not long after. Benjamaporn remains free for now and cautiously optimistic.

NIVAS: (Through interpreter) My heart tells me that change is going to come one day, but my head isn't so sure. I don't know which one to believe, but I want to believe that there will be change and that the people will win.

SULLIVAN: And for the record, she's not a bad student and has a 3.7 cum to prove it. It's only her attitude, she says, that her teachers and her government find objectionable. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.