Hair saga reflects authoritarian culture
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Hair saga reflects authoritarian culture

In this file photo, a barber in Chai Nat tries to fix a male student's shorn hair, a typical punishment by school teachers, which is against the students' human rights. Bangkok Post
In this file photo, a barber in Chai Nat tries to fix a male student's shorn hair, a typical punishment by school teachers, which is against the students' human rights. Bangkok Post

If you want to understand why dictatorship persists in Thailand, or the reason why the culture of bullying and impunity is so deep-rooted here, what happened at a public school in Si Sa Ket earlier this month offers an answer.

On the surface, it may seem like a petty quarrel between teachers and parents over hair length rules. It started when a teacher in Si Sa Ket decided to punish a female student for wearing her hair longer than her earlobes. He went on to cut her hair to length, but only halfway. Furthermore, he did it under the flagpole, before the eyes other students -- not just to humiliate her, but also to warn other students to not challenge school authorities.

Shorn hair was the mark of an outcast -- it was the punishment for slaves and/or prisoners who dared to rebel. For the masters, any sign of disobedience must be nipped in the bud.

Imagine the girl's agony that day at school.

I understand her mother's fury. She posted the photo of her daughter's shorn hair on social media, questioning the teacher's abuse of authority. The teacher was bombarded with harsh criticism, so much so that it prompted a high-ranking official in charge of children's welfare in Si Sa Ket to intervene.

According to Khaosod newspaper, the official said the forced haircut wasn't as ugly as some claimed, so should not cause such a big deal. She urged both parties to bury the hatchet, to act as if "nothing had happened", to "silence" the controversy. If the conflict continues, she said, it would affect the girl's situation at school. She also asked the school to "forgive" the girl because she didn't know any better.

I couldn't believe my eyes when I read the interview.

This fascist mentality is not uncommon. One teacher reportedly expressed anger at the students who dared to question the hair length rule, telling them "Go kill yourself!"

The school director also came out to defend the teacher, saying the rule is clear -- girls' hair must not be longer than the earlobes.

Boys also suffer under similarly ridiculous rules. Since schools reopened early this month, social media has been rife with photos showing students' partially-shorn heads. Some mean teachers even drew markings on the boys' shaved heads to further humiliate them in public.

These examples debunk the teachers' oft-repeated rhetoric. Their mission of selfless giving for the future of the nation? It's all a lie.

Here's the ugly truth: schools are the main pillar of Thai authoritarianism. They train young minds to be submissive to power, starting with total obedience to teachers who act like little dictators at school. By killing a questioning mind and focusing on punishment via public humiliation to extract docility, schools nurture the culture of fear to make children conform with the militaristic system run by those in power.

Schools are the microcosm of Thailand's totalitarian society. Thai teachers run schools like despots ruling over small kingdoms. Last year, photos of students prostrating on the ground en masse to welcome a new school director caused a public uproar. The ceremony also included him walking through rows of flag-bearing students in green military uniform like a proud general.

Such a ceremony, unfortunately, is not uncommon. Some schools proudly posted photos of their students prostrating at the feet of a school director.

The short-hair rule was promulgated in 1972 by coup makers. It ordered boys to wear crew cuts like soldiers while girls' hair length must not exceed their earlobes. The rule also prohibits dyed or permed hair.

Since then, teachers have observed this rule religiously because it enables them to assert raw power over students. For half a century, succeeding generations of children have wrangled with this suppressive rule and harassment.

A teacher recently posted a picture of herself pointing a thermometer gun at a pupil's forehead. Her caption? "No brain inside."

Talk about bullying!

According to a survey by the Network of Legal Advocates for Children and Youth this year, over 90% of school children have been subjected to bullying by their peers. There's no way to stop this sorry state when the teachers themselves show students every day that abuse is part of being powerful.

The social repercussions are grave. The use of power to force submission, military-style, endorses school violence and hazing at universities. Most teachers tend to look the other way, not only because of their obsession with the "face" of their organisations, but also because of their complicit approval of militarism.

School authoritarianism breeds a culture of fear. This explains why few girls dare to expose teachers who sexually abuse them. They know they will be the ones who get hurt, not their rapists, because the authoritarian system ensures oppressors have each other's back.

Back in Si Sa Ket, the girl's mother said she couldn't cope with criticism that she was damaging the school's reputation, so to end the matter -- and save her child -- she took her daughter out of the school.

But the winds of change are coming.

Today, students no longer accept abuse. When the school director of the controversial school in Si Sa Ket insisted the short-hair rule still applies, they knew he was wrong.

In May, the Education Ministry announced a new hair rule, allowing students and parents to have a say. Although hair has nothing to do with learning, this relaxed rule is a step in the right direction. However, many schools refuse to comply because it strips them of power.

A group of students calling themselves Dek Leow -- meaning "Bad Children", to satirise Dek Dee, the "Good Children" that the education system is supposed to produce -- staged a protest with a hair-shearing scene at the Education Ministry and called for enforcement of the new rule. The Education Ministry finally sent the order out again but refused to punish schools and teachers which abused their students.

As schools increasingly become militarised, students' academic performance continues to take a nosedive, remaining far behind other countries regionally and internationally.

Unperturbed, teachers continue to teach the ultranationalistic curriculum dictated by the centralised education authorities, because their salaries depend on years of service, not performance.

They also keep on ignoring community concerns because their promotion and salaries are decided by their bosses in Bangkok.

This must change. If teachers continue to value power, then the power centre must change from Bangkok to local communities.

Much talk on reform focus on changes in curriculum, class hours, and classroom instructions. Teachers won't change unless resistance hits them in the pockets.

If we want education reforms, if we want teachers to respect human rights, we must decentralise the education system.

We must make teachers accountable for their performance. We must also give local communities the power to hire and fire teachers.

Resistance from those clinging to power will be fierce. But as people's values change, a system which refuses to adjust will soon become obsolete.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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