“Liberty, equality, fraternity. French Revolution slogan resonated in my brain and encouraged me to learn more about our political history,” said “Penguin”, as Parit is known by family and friends.
The 17-year-old student from Triam Udom Suksa School recently made headlines in the Thai media when he and his friends challenged members of the Constitution Drafting Commission regarding policies providing free education as spelled out in the charter draft. “The draft is depriving students of basic educational rights,” Parit said, referring to Article 54 in the draft that seeks to begin pupils’ 12-year period of free education starting at kindergarten instead of at Prathom 1 in primary school as at present. Previously, students had free education until Mathayom 6, but the charter draft allows free education only until Mathayom 3.
“We have gone beyond that point [providing free secondary-school education] for decades. Why do we have to jump back to discuss the same issue? We should move forward, talking about reform not basic rights,” Parit said. Last year, Parit also challenged Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha during a seminar by appealing to the premier to revoke the so-called “civic duty” school curriculum designed by the junta.
The student was criticised for his action and accused of being backed by an anonymous political force – but the young activist views that allegation as an “old-fashioned, but effective joke”. He said he would not risk his future just for money, and he was instead motivated by his ideology.
However, each time that he challenges authorities, he apologises to show humility to adults in keeping with Thai traditions.
“I did not mean to be arrogant. I just wanted to share my opinion with the leaders. But there is no way – no discussion was held to listen to students’ opinions. What should I do to make sure that my voice has been heard?” Parit asked.
Given his high profile, the student has both advocates and detractors.
Some of his school friends have suggested that he keep a low profile and concentrate on his studies, but Parit said he is not worried about negative feedback.
He added that as long as he knew “what and for what” motivated his actions, and they were for the country’s sake, he would carry on.
After the coup, his parents have been concerned about their son’s safety because many high-profile activists have been detained under the junta’s “attitude adjustment” programme, but they allowed him to decide on his own. His father, he said, only gave him suggestions regarding positive and negative consequences of his actions.
“In society, we have to fight for what we want no matter what happens. I wish all Thai students have basic rights to a good education. So I have to move on,” Parit said, adding that his role model was Chit Phumisak, the Thai author, historian and poet. Chit was shot dead in 1966 by authorities of the anti-communist government as he was considered a threat to the state. Parit said the slain activist inspired him to also be a historian in the future.
As the secretary-general of a student group called “Education for Independence”, Parit urges students not to wait passively for adults to make decisions that might harm them in the long run. Founded in 2014 after the coup, the group aims to demonstrate student power, assembling about 100 secondary school students nationwide who have shared interests in education and democracy.
Parit added that students have the power to stand up for what they want if they are brave enough even though society often ignores children’s voices. In his view, students are exhausted by hectic study schedules that make them worn out to think about social contributions and reforms.
He also pledged to fight for “dream education and a democratic society” even though Thailand is now ruled by a military-installed government.
It takes time to gain real democracy. France, he said, required a couple of hundred years after its revolution to gain a real democracy, while it has only been 84 years since Thailand’s own 1932 revolution.
“Thailand has a long way to go before real democracy comes,” he said, adding that people in society should be enthusiastic to exercise their rights to call for democracy.
“If only one penguin turns out, the public will see it as strange. But if tens of thousands of penguins emerge, it becomes normal,” Parit said.