There’s a distinct buzz in schoolyards around Thailand when the academic year starts every May, and 19-year-old Wattanachai Rojyindee aims to silence it.
The sound is of electric clippers that teachers use to shear students’ hair in a standardized fashion, a ritual that is part of the nation’s longstanding passion for strict dress codes. Mr. Wattanachai, having suffered several of these haircuts himself, has formed the Student Hairdo Resistance Organization of Thailand to encourage schools to drop the clippers.
“It’s not a good look when you are 15 and trying to find your own identity,” he said. “How would the teachers like it if they had to get haircuts like that?”
“Haircuts like that” are clipped-down military styles with a tuft on top for boys or, for girls, a pudding-bowl bob. Sometimes teachers shave just a strip up the back of a student’s head, for a parent or barber to finish.
The haircuts are as much a part of the school experience in Thailand as the crisp white shirts with khaki shorts or long navy-blue skirts seen around the country. The regimented look harks back to former dictator Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, who decreed in 1941 that Thais should wear uniforms “as position and opportunity permits.”
As with much in the nation today, the coiffures have become part of a struggle between the modern forces of democracy and militaristic traditions. Although an elected government dropped the haircut rule in 2013, many schools chose to stick with shearing after a new military-installed junta came to power in a coup two years ago.
“We need it to maintain the school’s reputation,” said Thanikul Kaewketmanee, deputy director of the Phrapathom Wittayala school from which Mr. Wattanachai graduated last year in this small town west of Bangkok.
“Our school has a history going back 107 years,” he said. “If the boys want to look handsome, well, they’ll just have to go study somewhere else.”
Mr. Wattanachai, the son of a guava farmer who now studies computer science in college and has treated himself to a thick mop of hair, counters that Thailand needs to shift with the times. “These days people are sharing pictures of themselves online,” he said. “If you have a bad haircut, it’s so embarrassing.”
Last year in his high-school senior year, he devised his Hairdo Resistance group to encourage students to voice opposition to what they view as the tyranny of the clippers. Its Facebook page, with over 19,000 followers, bears the strap-line “Long hair or short, what matters is how we exercise our rights” and carries students’ accounts of their latest cuts.
Nitithon Phitsawat, 17, described how his high-school teacher used electric clippers to shear a stripe up the back of his head to force him to get the rest cut to school specs. “This happens every month,” he wrote. Some wrote that teachers had students sit in their schoolyards cross-legged, waiting for trims. One wrote forced haircuts were “a violation of students’ rights.”
Others have posted pictures taken furtively from the back of class, showing bald patches on heads recently shaved by teachers, sometimes in the shape of an X.
“This guy helps us speak the truth,” said Sunant Pangsri, 16, a high-school student in Bangkok who recently got the traditional cut.
A parent, Wanjarat Kodkham, said she laughed the first time her sons came home with a school-inflicted haircut. “It serves you right!” she recalled telling them. “It’s better to keep our traditions, but I don’t agree with it if the teachers are deliberately trying to make the haircuts embarrassing or ugly as a punishment.”
Mr. Wattanachai said parents ask him for advice on what to do after their children’s schools administer haircuts. “There’s not much I can tell them,” he said, “except to pressure the school to change its policy.”
He concedes that isn’t likely, though some private schools have loosened regulations for girls.
The shorn look is bound with Thailand’s broader fascination with uniforms. Civil servants’ formal wear comprises a white, navy-style buttoned tunic trimmed with a gold lanyard. University students still wear uniforms.
And some older Thais remember their school dress code so fondly they are going back to it themselves. In Phibun Mangsahan, near Thailand’s border with Laos, elderly students are proudly putting school uniforms back on in a return-to-school program where they learn new skills such as nursing or computer use.
“I feel like I’m about 15 or 16,” said one, Buntana Jamsri, 69. “My grandchildren said to me, ‘Grandma, you look much younger, like a young girl.’ So I checked myself in the mirror, and I thought, oh yeah!”
Her classmate Phanom Boriboon, 60, smiled broadly as he struck the school bell to start the day’s classes. “They never called my name to ring the bell when I was a kid,” he said, “so I’m really pleased to have a chance to turn back the clock.”
Some of these mature students have cut their hair schoolboy-style, though others struggle just to keep their comb-overs in place.
Thai teenagers have ways to avoid teachers’ shears. Mr. Wattanachai recently took visitors to meet his favorite hairdresser, Buasai Dengdom, at the Diamond Hair Salon. Ms. Buasai, he said, has a knack for keeping hair within school guidelines but still stylish. Her secret: cutting with scissors, not clippers. “You can provide more shape and style,” she said.
“The parents bring their sons here,” Ms. Buasai said, “and they kick up such a drama. ‘I don’t want it short, don’t cut it, please,’ they say.”
“I tell them this: It’s either me who cuts it, or it’s the teachers. That usually shuts them up.”