By the time the boy had turned 11, he had allegedly faced three years of sexual abuse from one of his teachers at a primary school for boys in Bangkok.
Students at the Thai school were reportedly in fear of the abusive teacher, who would accost them in the washrooms. Other teachers, according to the boy’s relatives, knew about the ongoing abuse, yet they did nothing to stop it.
In fact, school administrators allegedly tried to hush the matter up by offering to pay some money to the boy’s parents if they agreed to keep quiet.
Authority figures like teachers automatically are held in high esteem in Thailand, where students are expected to prostrate themselves at the feet of their teachers during school ceremonies on National Teachers’ Day each Jan. 16.
As a result, often the reflexive reaction of school administrators in the face of allegations of wrongdoing is to ignore the issue even when the mental and physical well-being of students could be at stake.
But a rash of school sexual-abuse cases throughout 2021 is raising alarm to the point that parents are refusing to keep quiet. In the case of the boys school, parents rejected the bribe and reported their allegations to police
“These so-called administrators are nauseating, desperate to save face in order to swan around in a uniform. Trying to settle by paying a bribe shows how much they value a child’s education,” one irate commenter noted on social media.
“Surely the school administrators should be charged with trying to pervert the course of justice by offering what was basically a bribe to settle the case out of court. But I suppose that’s the way things are done in Thailand: anything to save face,” argued another commenter.
The Bangkok case was hardly an isolated incident. In another lurid episode, five teachers at a public school in Mukdahan Province were charged with repeatedly assaulting a 14-year-old girl. To add insult to injury, the teachers recorded videos of one another while raping the girl, whose grandmother reported the abuse when she found out about it.
In that school too, administrators were accused of trying to hush up the matter. Saving face was deemed to be of primary importance and owning up to misdeeds or mistakes is often seen as a sure way of losing face.
Yet that entrenched cultural reflex is hardly commendable. It serves to allow some teachers to get away with abusing their authority in Thai public schools where a climate of authoritarianism prevails, with students expected to obey their teachers without question, according to student activists and social commentators alike.
“Successive governments have promised to make schools safe for children, but little has been done in reality to end sexual harassment and other abuses,” observed Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Increasingly, however, students are taking matters into their own hands by speaking out. As they are doing so, they are throwing down the gauntlet to teachers, schools and Thailand’s entire educational system, which they see as repressive and backward.
Over the past year numerous high school students, sarcastically calling themselves Bad Students, have been taking to Bangkok’s streets during youth-led rallies clamoring for sweeping educational reforms. They have been speaking out against compulsory hairstyle rules they believe stifle their individuality; against curricula they view as low on useful content and high on mindless indoctrination; and against the country’s political system, which they regard as deeply undemocratic.
Some students have also been campaigning to lift the veil of silence in schools on what they say is widespread sexual harassment and abuse. In one much-publicized act of protest, Nalinrat Tuthubthim, a 20-year-old university student, stood on a Bangkok street in a high school uniform with black duct tape over her mouth.
She was holding a sign that read: “I have been sexually abused by a teacher. School is not safe.”
When she was in high school, Nalinrat explained in a social media post, she was sexually abused by a teacher, who preyed on her innocence. When she reported the abuse to school administrators, they condescendingly dismissed her allegations out of hand, she said.
Thai schools “normalize an authoritarian system and a culture of sexual harassment,” the young woman stressed. “The sexual harassment is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other problems underneath it,” she added.
Rights advocates like Sunai see it as a positive development that despite cultural norms that expect them to be silently deferential to their teachers, more and more students are speaking truth to power about what goes on at their schools.
“Children refuse to be silently submissive in the face of an education system that fails to protect them,” Sunai said.
The original version of this story was published in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.