Pupils' hunger strike exposes corruption in Thai school admissions

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 31, 2012 SEE UPDATE AND CORRECTION BELOW!

A hunger strike by schoolchildren who have been barred from advancing to the upper secondary level at their Bangkok school has highlighted the ever-existing problem of corruption when it comes to parents finding a place to learn for their children in Thailand.

Last year we looked at then education minister Woravat Auapinyakul's remarks concerning the long-existing practice of tea money for school admissions. But instead of combatting this customary bribing for a better education, Woravut has suggested to make these more 'transparent' - while still enabling children from richer social backgrounds to have a more competitive edge over others.

Now, under the new education minister Suchart Thada-Thamrongvech, the victims of this common 'tradition' had enough and staged a hunger strike:

Four students of Bodindecha (Sing Singhaseni) School continued their protest at Government House for a second day yesterday, calling on school management to admit all Matthayom 3 [Grade 9] students into Matthayom 4 [Grade 10] to further their studies at the school.

[Education Minister Suchart Thada-Thamrongvech] said he believed the students were being used as a political tool by a certain group of people. He instructed the Office of Basic Education Commission to lodge a police complaint against the people he believes are behind the protest. The minister refused to name the people he suspected.

The protesting students said they finished Matthayom 3 at Bodindecha school with a GPA of over 2.0, but were not selected to continue their studies because the management had allocated some seats for new students.

"‘Politics’ behind hunger strike", Bangkok Post, May 21, 2012

Suchart's suspicions of some political conspiracy are typical of the tendency to try to solve a problem at the end, rather than at its roots. What groups does he think could be utilizing teenagers for a hunger strike? Or is he trying to deflect the attention from the bribes problem?

Nevertheless, the education ministry actually intervened:

The Education Ministry has told Bodindecha (Sing Singhaseni) School to accept 57 students it earlier rejected and ordered a probe against the director for bribery.

The move ended the hunger strike of four students outside Government House which started on Friday in an attempt to pressure the authorities.

The ministry's order came after a meeting between Pornpichit Sukannan, adviser to Education Minister Suchart Thada-Thamrongvech, and parents who suspected irregularities in the school's admission system after their children were denied seats.

"School bribe inquiry ordered", Bangkok Post, May 22, 2012

Whether or not the investigation will result in anything remains to be seen, as the Anti-Money Laundering Office has received a petition investigate another 20 school heads for bribery. At least this intervention gave the students and their parents some peace of mind to plan the next few years in school until a day later...

Office of the Basic Education Commission (Obec) secretary-general Chinnapat Bhumirat said Bodindecha (Sing Singhaseni) School has admission regulations and education management standards to uphold and cannot accept as many students as it had agreed.

The move reversed an agreement between Pornpichit Sukannan, an adviser to Education Minister Suchart Thada-Thamrongvech, and parents on Monday that the school would enrol all 57. Obec's decision follows a meeting yesterday between parents, Obec representatives and the education minister.

The decision sparked uproar from parents. One left a note in the meeting room accusing the Education Ministry of leaving the children scarred. (...) Mr Chinnapat said the agency will try its best to find places for students who miss out and called on parents to try to understand.

"School about-turn angers parents", Bangkok Post, May 23 , 2012

So, the education ministry has prematurely stormed forward with a too-simple solution that is now crumbled by an apparently very strict system.

For the families and their children the past weeks have been one single up-and-down experience, as they have been simply lucked out for betting on school grades alone to advance to upper secondary level instead of paying a bit extra. In a last-ditch move, a group of parents and schoolchildren, after having submitting a petition to prime minister Yingluck Shinatwatra, have now approached General Prem Tinsulanonda, the president of the privy council, for help.

However, even if the teenagers will get a place at Bodindecha or some other school, this still doesn't solve the problem of paying bribes for a school admission. Even worse, there have been already reports of bullying against the protesting students, who eventually got to continue attending at that school.

UPDATE: In a bizarre development on Thursday, education minister Suchart is going to sue the student protesters and their parents for "providing wrong information to the press and even burning an effigy" of him. He also stated that the whole conflict was sparked from a "misunderstanding, that their children are not allowed admission because of 'tea money'."

CORRECTION: Contrary to what is reported in the news snippets, a number of the striking children are apparently well below the required score to technically advance to upper secondary level. The corresponding sentence in the post has been struck through. Apologies to our readers!

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and on Facebook here.