Agents of change

The Thai arm of social activism website change.org has marked its first anniversary. A platform where citizens can set up petitions and rally for the public good, the website has seen civic campaigners bring attention to a myriad of issues. While some of the campaigns have made a difference, other issues continue to be ignored. Here we take a look at five campaigns that have made an impact in the past year.

Campaign: Stop showing violent films on buses

Sajin Prachason is a regular passenger on Transport Co Ltd buses. During her trip from the Northeast to Bangkok on an air-conditioned coach, passengers were shown a film that contains violence as on-board entertainment. Showing films on buses is standard practice here, but brutal explosions, a gory scene in which a character gets his throat slashed and chokes on his own blood, and a girl being raped, sickened her. A sleep mask didn't help _ the coaches are equipped with surround-sound systems making the films impossible to escape.

Sajin thought it was lucky she hadn't brought her little child along with her, but she spotted young passengers watching the film attentively. A female passenger next to her who often travels the route told Sajin that she had watched the movie several times on the coach.

During a rest break, Sajin asked the driver to change the film for the sake of the younger passengers, but the driver said he didn't have any other films.

Upon her return, Sajin requested the cessation of showing violent movies on inter-provincial buses, with no response, so she made an online petition at www.change.org.th. It worked.

Within a week, the petition attracted more than 300 signatures that put pressure on the executive of the bus operator who then replied to Sajin's email. The executive explained that it's not the company's policy to show films that contain violent content, but it's the driver who chooses a film to show on the coach. The bus operator has sent the driver a written notice to stop violent movies on the trip.

Sajin told Life that it would be even better if the bus operator had a policy to ban violent films as onboard entertainment.

"It's better than doing nothing," Sajin said. "Exposure to violent media can make kids act aggressively, and frequent exposure to aggression and conflict can be a risk factor for violent behaviour.

"When I have our kid with me on a coach, I never forget to bring child-friendly or family films with me in case the driver doesn't have anything else," the mother of two said.

— Sukhumaporn Laiyok


Campaign: Standing to the side while using an escalator

Chatcharapon Penchom, 37, is frustrated every time he uses escalators at BTS stations.

"The BTS escalator can be unsafe because commuters stand on both the left and right sides. Sometimes people at the back push forward and almost trip over those who stand in front of them. It is possible to cause a huge accident," said Chatcharapon, who used to lodge complaints to BTS without getting any response.

Last year, he set up a petition on www.change.org.th to pressure BTS to provide signs and announcements for commuters to use the escalators in a regulated and safe manner.

This seemingly trivial complaint is in fact a good example of civic responsibility. Escalator traffic is a form of public traffic, and its safety affects a large number of people. Chatcharapon's petition became the talk of the town. Some people even debated and conducted polls on social media to find out which side commuters should stand on. Within months, 6,032 people signed the petition. Chatcharapon submitted all signatures to BTS in April, but he did not get a response.

"At least we have over 6,000 signatures to give to BTS to back up the cause," he said.

Chatcharapon looks at online petition campaigns as productive outlets for whiners.

"There are a lot of people who love to find faults and complain. Sometimes their complaints are useful. The online petition platform provides a way for those whiners to transform their worries into action that might really create change in society," said Chatcharapon.

Though the voices of petitioners are still not being heard, he still hopes the impact will inspire BTS to provide facilities to regulate escalator riding.

"The BTS has the power to make change. It initiated graphic signs for commuters to wait at the left and right sides of the door of the train, and that has created a new culture for people to stand in line and respect those who're getting off. It can do the same with escalators," he said.

— Anchalee Kongrut


Campaign: Asking before bagging

'Do you want some more Chinese buns? A stick of gum is 10 baht _ do you want some?"

A 7-Eleven convenient store's customer is familiar with these questions asked by store cashiers. But customer Warankana Rattanarat's expectations go beyond that. She would like the store's employees to ask customers whether they need a plastic bag or not _ a small gesture that would help reduce waste.

She noticed that the store's employees eagerly bag items for every purchase, even if it's just a stick of gum or a bottle of water. In her opinion, tiny plastic bags are not practical for reuse, and they increase waste as they usually end up in a bin.

After she learned the company that operates the store has been working on environmentally friendly project "Seven Go Green", she started an online petition at www.change.org.th urging the store's operator to train their employees to ask customers before bagging. This, she said, allows customers to think about whether they really need a plastic bag, particularly when a purchase of just one or two items is made. After about a year, more than 3,000 signatures were collected, but no progress was made. Some people who signed the petition said the no-plastic-bag campaign should not be restricted to convenience stores, but also extended to include department stores.

A few months ago, Warankana attempted to use a new channel for the petition. This time, she passed a written request to the 7-Eleven's customer service department, with no response.

"The company said it's going green, so I don't think training their staff to ask before bagging would be a big deal if they want to become a truly green company," she said.

Warankana, who works for a non-governmental organisation, said she is going to make another attempt to approach the company's staff who work on the green project. That would give her a hope for change.

"Reducing plastic bags will make a difference to the environment. More work needs to be done," she said.

— Sukhumaporn Laiyok


Campaign: Stop prejudice against transgenders and gays in school textbooks

What petitioner Rattanawat Janamnuaysook witnessed in her younger cousin's seventh-grade health textbook was pictures of transgender pageant beauties with censor bars across their eyes _ like in tabloid news, or as if they're criminals.

That was standard practice for many health textbooks. While it could have been an attempt to protect the privacy of the subjects, Rattanawat believes that they are derogatory and the text that accompanies the pictures is often dismissive and misleading, for example: ''Homosexuality is an illness where people don't act according to their sexual orientation.'' Or: ''Homosexual relationships often don't last very long and normally end up with jealousy and violence.'' What Jetsada Taesombat, another advocate for the cause and coordinator at Thai Transgender Alliance, calls for in her Change petition is that the Ministry of Education remove the offensive content that is rarely updated and is insulting to young students who could possibly be dealing with gender issues.

''It's so important to not create prejudice at a young age. Children shouldn't be taught that homosexuals and transgenders are freaks. Kids that struggle with these issues already would suffer more and start to question if they are weird while their peers could bully them out of disgust,'' she said.

She also adds how further content regarding how to deal with homosexuality should be considered. ''If possible, future textbooks should have information with how to deal with being gender-confused, as well as a section for parents on how to deal with having a katoey son. Students today don't know what to do when they are faced with gender issues because there is no helpful guidance to be found in their readings.

''Kids are so prone to misunderstanding with content that's clearly outdated. Curriculum content only gets revised here once every 10 years. We can't remain this way when society is always changing.''

— Parisa Pichitmarn


Campaign: Shut down city zoo

For more than two decades, wildlife activists have campaigned against a private zoo in Bangkok that displays exotic animals such as gorillas, bears and tigers.

Pata Zoo has long been controversial, mainly because it is located in one of the most unlikely spots: the top floor of a building in crowded Pin Klao area.

At the same time, the zoo is legally registered and still receives a fair number of visitors.

Sinjira Apitan is an animal rights activist who initiated the online petition on Change two months ago to try to raise awareness and bring an end to the city zoo.

''The owner just turned a blind eye. Yes, the zoo is legal, but everyone knows keeping wildlife on the rooftop of a shopping mall is morally wrong,'' said Sinjira.

Within one month, the petition drew 2,000 signatures, some of them from as far as Argentina and Canada.

Sinjira is not new to activism and campaigning. A former fund-raiser at Wildlife Fund Thailand (WFT), she has been campaigning against Pata Zoo for two decades, albeit without much success.

Yet, the online petition at www.change.org.th reignited interest in the notorious zoo.

''I am astonished by the force and speed of the new online platform. Within a short period of time, a hundred or a thousand people in different parts of the world learned about this zoo. In the past, you would have to keep sending petition letters to authorities.''

What impresses the veteran activist is the data checking and monitoring system that makes sure the campaign sends the right information and truly benefits society.

The petition against Pata Zoo constantly draws online supporters and media. Currently, Thai PBS and a few foreign media outlets are putting the spotlight on Pata Zoo. However, Sinjira is not positive that the victory will come easily.

''I am not overly optimistic that the zoo will be closed. There is a long way to go,'' she said. But at least the veteran activist has found a powerful new tool.

— Anchalee Kongrut

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Writer: Life Reporters