BANGKOK • Thousands of high school students upset about Thailand's lacklustre education system rallied alongside protesters dressed as dancing dinosaurs in Bangkok yesterday.
It was the first mass gathering in the kingdom since Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha warned that the authorities would use all laws, including harsh royal defamation charges, to crack down on pro-democracy protesters.
Since August, emboldened by a broader political protest movement sweeping Thailand, a group called the "Bad Students" has campaigned for the resignation of Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan, demanded cultural change, equality, a curriculum overhaul and relaxation of strict rules.
Ahead of yesterday's rally, three student leaders were summoned for police questioning and Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said there were now four juveniles facing potential prosecution.
But despite the threats, the youth remained defiant as they danced alongside half a dozen T-Rex characters, representing Thailand's "political dinosaurs", and bounced around giant "asteroid" balls. "We have to come out and make our voices heard to force change," Leaf, 15, told Agence France-Presse.
Many students wore coloured wristbands to indicate they were underage, so older protesters could protect them.
"School is not a safe place (for girls)," one student's placard said.
Hundreds of protesters at the rally wore rubber duck hair clips, a reference to pro-democracy protesters using inflatable pool toys to shield themselves from police water cannon and tear gas last Tuesday.
Many protesters were upset that families have to fork out extra money for tutoring because of the poor quality of teaching.
"I spend so much for my daughter's tutoring fees and need to enrol her in a faraway school so that she could get a good education. It should not be like this," said Ms Supaporn Pratumrat, 41, who attended the rally with her daughter.
Izzy, 18, went to the United States on a student exchange last year and said students there were able to have fun and pursue their hobbies after school, but many Thai students do not have that luxury.
"In Thailand some students go to extra classes from 4pm to 9pm," he told AFP.
Since July, Thailand has been rocked by youth-led protests demanding a new Constitution, making unprecedented calls to reform the untouchable monarchy, and for Mr Prayut, who came to power in a 2014 coup, to resign.
Police used tear gas and water cannon against protesters outside Parliament last Tuesday and 55 people were injured, including six people shot during scuffles between democracy activists and hard-line royalists.
A day later protesters sprayed graffiti on the facade of the national police headquarters building and threw paint at the complex.
The government's decision to give police the green light to pursue royal defamation charges against pro-democracy protesters is likely to increase tensions ahead of the next major rally scheduled for Wednesday.
"Destroying public property, unprecedented violation of the monarchy, I personally cannot accept this," Mr Prayut said on Friday night.
In Thailand, lese majeste charges are routinely interpreted to include any criticism of the monarchy - including content posted or shared on social media.
Anyone convicted of defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir or regent faces between three years and 15 years in prison on each count.