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30 May 2024

Thai schoolgirl learns to smile again after teacher assault

Naruedee Jotsanthia (AFP)


There were moments when Naruedee Jotsanthia thought she'd never smile again.

The Thai schoolgirl says she was left facially disfigured last year after a teacher threw a mug at her head.

The attack, which went viral and sparked renewed debate about the country's deeply hierarchical education system, locked one side of her face in a downward droop and left her unable to close her left eye.

"When I saw my face, I just couldn't accept it," the 18-year-old from Thailand's impoverished northeastern Korat province told AFP. "I thought about hurting myself. I really just could not believe it."

Naruedee had always dreamed of becoming an air hostess, but felt there was little chance an airline would ever consider hiring her.

Yet eight months on she is smiling again thanks to months of costly medical therapy and daily exercises funded by strangers.

"I might not be 100 percent normal," she said, a hint of paralysis still visible on her left side. "But I am very satisfied already on what I have achieved so far. At least I can smile again."

The attack was one of a number of recent events that have sparked intense public anger over how authority figures treat underlings in a country where questioning your superiors is taboo.

Last year video footage went viral of a student forced to grovel at her teacher's feet following a disagreement over whether she was allergic to egg-tofu soup.

A Thai Air Asia stewardess was also forced to prostrate herself on the floor before a disgruntled passenger, prompting an apology from airline boss Tony Fernandez.

Military values

Teachers are near sacrosanct in Thai culture, afforded huge respect and deference.

But many education reform advocates argue such extreme kowtowing discourages critical thinking in students, pointing out that school standards in the comparatively wealthy nation have been slipping for years.

Education for Liberation of Siam, a group advocating schooling reform, said the authorities should do more to "make schools free from violence, change attitude about punishment and take quick action in cases like these."  

Yet Thailand's culture of deference has become more intense since the military seized power in 2014.

Junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha has ordered all school children to recite his "twelve values" daily, which include respecting parents, teachers, elders and "maintaining discipline".

So far Naruedee's medical treatment has cost as much as three times the annual income her family brings in as cassava farmers in Thailand's impoverished northeast.  

The bill has been picked up by the Pavena Foundation, which assists women trying to escape abuse and also helped Naruedee find a new school.  

"It's taken five months, we can see Naruedee looking normal again, she can now shut her mouth and eyes," Pavena Hongsakula, a former politician who founded the foundation, said.

The school admits the teacher attacked Naruedee but disputes whether the paralysis, which emerged the day after the assault, was caused by the mug.

The school director said they paid the family 50,000 baht ($1,450) compensation and that the teacher was transferred to another school.

Police have charged him with assault but the attorney general's office has yet to push ahead with a prosecution.

Naruedee now wants to focus on chasing her dream of becoming an air hostess.

"I don't know if I'm dreaming too high or not," she said, breaking out into a wide grin.