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Thailand's student-led protests against government grow

NAKHON PATHOM, Thailand (AP) — High school students in Thailand's capital held blank signs and flashed three-fingered salutes to show opposition to the government, and about 2,000 university students joined a protest on the outskirts of Bangkok on Tuesday as the youth-led pro-democracy movement spread.

The students at Mahidol University in Nakhon Pathom gathered on a football field in the evening to cheer speakers criticizing the government. Others formed double lines to sign a petition calling for amendments to the constitution, which was drafted under military control.

“Some students don’t dare to speak the truth because Thai society teaches them that they have to listen to adults and obey their orders," said one of the speakers, 18-year-old Athiya Pornprom. "But today we are expressing ourselves and we will end this old tradition. This problem ends with us.”

Earlier, around 30 high school students at Samsen Wittayalai school in Bangkok shouted “Down with dictatorship, long live democracy” and held up sheets of plain white paper, meant to convey the message that they were not free to express themselves.

Some girls tied white ribbons to their bags, a recently emerged symbol of dissent. “People realize nowadays politics isn’t something remote,” said an 18-year-old student who only gave her nickname, Nudee. “When people realize this, they want a better future. That’s why we came out to protest.”

Pro-democracy hashtags linked to high school protests were trending on social media with photographs and videos showing young students at schools in a number of cities lined up on playgrounds and giving the salutes during the compulsory daily singing of the national anthem.

The displays of solidarity began last week and are a remarkable show of defiance within an educational system that stresses obedience to elders. They appear to be growing after the largest anti-government rally in six years was held in Bangkok on Sunday and highlight how the student-led protest movement is capturing the imagination of many young people after six years of relative political quiet.

Thai media reported such school protests occurring in provinces including Ratchaburi, Udon Thani, Khon Kaen, Surat Thani and Nakhon Sawan, as well as in the capital. Speaking after a Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said he recognized the “pure” intentions of the high school students but said he believes some were bullied into joining the protests.

Many people have become weary of the rule of Prayuth, a former army chief who took power in a military coup in 2014 and then retained it in a 2019 election widely seen as rigged to all but guarantee his victory.

Under his leadership the economy has struggled to compete with its neighbors, even before the damage inflicted by measures to counter the coronavirus pandemic. The government’s image has also been tarnished by corruption scandals for which no one has been held accountable. Thailand’s Office of the Basic Education Commission, which supervises more than 1,000 schools, both private and public, issued an order allowing students to hold protest events on school premises provided they stay within the law and exclude outsiders.

The United Nations children’s organization UNICEF issued a statement calling for all parties to ensure that those involved remain safe and able to express their opinions peacefully without fear or intimidation.

The student-led protest movement has declared three core demands: holding new elections, amending the constitution and ending the intimidation of critics of the government. At Sunday’s large Bangkok rally they spelled out three more points: no more coups, no national unity government and upholding Thailand as a democracy with the king as head of state under the constitution.

The reference to a national unity government was apparently a warning to all political parties against making a backroom deal instead of holding elections, and the reference to the king seemed to be meant as a reassurance that they did not want to abolish the monarchy.

Protest leaders triggered controversy earlier this month when they expanded their original agenda, publicly criticizing the constitutional monarchy and issuing a 10-point manifesto calling for its reform.

Their action was virtually unprecedented, as the monarchy is considered sacrosanct in Thailand and any criticism is normally kept private. A lese majeste law calls for a prison sentence of three to 15 years for anyone found guilty of criticizing some members of the royal family.

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