In Thailand, Students Take on the Military (and ‘Death Eaters’)

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The military’s grip on society goes back generations in Thailand, where coups are almost as likely as elections to shape politics. The school haircut rule, for instance, was instituted in 1972, when the country was led by an American-backed field marshal.

“In the military government’s intention, the ideal student, like the citizen, should be passively prone,” said Giuseppe Bolotta, an assistant professor of research in anthropology at Durham University in Britain who studies Thailand. The aim, he said, was for the youth to “show absolute loyalty and obedience and be ready to sacrifice for the sake of the nation and its tutelary deities: monarchy, Buddhism and the army.”

Even today, infractions, such as wearing socks that tend toward ecru or eggshell rather than plain white, can earn students a caning, despite a ban on corporal punishment in schools. And army conscription remains a fact of life for young men.

“The military’s values are to not question and to follow orders collectively,” said Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, the president of the political science student union at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “This is imposed in Thai schools, where teachers say we have to be obedient. Because it’s gone on so long, we think this is normal, that the government also has to be obeyed.”

In May, after protests by Mr. Netiwit, Ms. Benjamaporn and others, the education ministry relaxed the rules on student haircuts. While perms and dyed hair are still taboo, individual schools can now decide on the coiffures of their charges. But many schools, particularly in rural areas, have kept to the old traditions.

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