The time for the grand finale of the three-day 1st Thailand World Schools Debating Championship (TWSDC) arrived earlier this month just as the curtain fell on the government-red shirt conflict.
Industry Minister Chaiwuti Bannawat presents the championship trophy to the winning team from Patumwan Demonstration School at the 1st Thailand World Schools Debating Championship. The team members are, from left, Pitchaporn Chongyangyuenwong, Potchara Kunanusorn, Napat Mothaneeyachart, Kritin Komolkiti and Nutthanun Thanomvajamun.
"I now call this house to order to debate the motion that 'Civil disobedience is an integral part of a democracy' and invite the prime minister from the government bench to present his case," announced the master of ceremonies. A rumble of applause greeted his words, and some members of the audience thumped their hands on tabletops to cheer the ensuing verbal battle.
Nilay Rego, a Ruamrudee International School (RIS) student, took to the podium at centre stage with panache and self-confidence, and in crisply articulated English said, "We on the government side are committed to fighting for the people, particularly the oppressed, to protect their freedom of speech, to safeguard their right to express their views on politics, and for the minorities in our society. We fight for them by supporting civil disobedience," he said, and after a brief reference to the recent red-shirt protests, continued: "We think it is unfair for the government to condemn the actions of protesters, who may have had their rights suppressed or may not have been able to express their opinions freely and openly. They feel that they must resort to civil disobedience to get the government's attention so that their voices will be heard."
In the face of this well-crafted verbal volley, the opposition felt compelled to halt the oral onslaught by tactically inserting a POI (point of information), which they did by rising and politely requesting permission from the speaker to interrupt, in accordance with accepted parliamentary practice. The debating "prime minister" consented to the interruption.
"Does the government condone 'civil' disobedience even when the actions of the protestors become violent?" asked Pitchaporn Chongyangyuenwong, the "opposition leader" and a student from the host school, Patumwan Demonstration School (PDS). Her eloquent interjection was immediately followed by audible support from an anxious and active audience.
The term "civil disobedience" loosely refers to an act of peaceful resistance to laws or conditions deemed by many members of the public to be unfair or unjust.
Adherents to non-violent civil protests, such as Mohandas Gandhi, JD, and Martin Luther King, Jr, PhD, have popularised this form of non-violent civil protest. In the case of Thailand, the analogy can be seen in some of the actions of the yellow-shirt protesters and possibly the behaviour of the red-shirt activists, at least during the early stages of their May-June demonstrations.
Chanida Susumpow won one of the Best Speaker awards.
It is both impressive and thought-provoking that high school orators are able to master such complicated and delicate issues - in English - when it appears at times that Thailand's adult leaders - on both sides - find the grasp of these critical concepts to be elusive. The two team finalists, "RIS Team 2" and "PDS Team 2", were confident they each had the correct solution.
RIS was appointed to represent the "house" (the government), while PDS was assigned to take the opposing position. The debaters and their positions were Rego, prime minister; Puhan He, deputy prime minister; and Chanida Susumpow, government whip. The opposition bench consisted of Pitchaporn, opposition leader; Kritin Komolkiti, deputy opposition leader; and Potchara Kunanu-sorn, opposition whip. Other team members were: Christian Iseli from RIS, and Nutthanun Thanomvajamun and Napat Mothaneeyachart from PDS.
What is even more impressive than their skills in handling the troublous topic is that each team was notified only 30 minutes before taking the stage which side (pro or con) of the argument they would have to present in the final round, in keeping with debate rules.
Democracy and law are not always perfect, but they remain the best options available to the governed; and violence and destruction of property are not integral parts of democracy, explained opposition leader Pitchaporn.
"Although people who oppose a law or condition in society are allowed to use civil disobedience as a tool to right perceived wrongs, protesters are not permitted to engage in violent acts in pursuit of even legitimate goals, opposition leader Pitchaporn continued.
"As opponents of the motion, we say that in a democratic society there are many ways to persuade the government - including verbally or visually expressing one's opinions and by participating in elections, polls and petitions. Additionally, we assert that at the beginning of the protests, the non-violent conduct of the red shirts in Thailand was a proper application of civil disobedience. In our view, however, the destructive and illegal acts of the red shirts towards the end of their protests went beyond lawful civil disobedience.
"Finally, the proposition argues that the government must protect the rights of all citizens. We say that while the government protects the rights of the minority, it must do so while balancing the rights of the majority," said Pitchaporn in her rebuttal.
And so the debate continued, tit for tat, for the better part of an hour. All six orators showed their superb debating skills right up to the moment when the clock sounded and just prior to the final eruption of thunderous applause.
The three-day TWSDC was held earlier this month under the theme "Speak out, the world is listening" at PDS and culminated in the grand final at Asia Hotel in Bangkok. The event was initiated by PDS and was aimed at providing a forum for students to develop their English skills, promote the tradition of debates among students, provide students with international experience, and stimulate discussion on current events in Thailand and the world.
Over 100 high school students from 12 schools signed up for the competition. This was the first time in Thailand that a multi-high school debate tournament was held under the guidelines of the World Schools Debating Championships.
"Debating is a great skill that children should learn and study. It incorporates all the foundations of education: reading, writing, researching and critical thinking. Not only will students need to use all these skills in life, but they will also get the chance to learn and apply them - in English. It is not enough to be smart; you have to be able to communicate effectively with people," said Phra Chainarong Sangsranoi, convener of the competition.
Phra Chainarong teaches Buddhism at PDS and was coach to the 2010 Thailand national team that competed in the most-recent World Schools Debating Championship in Qatar.
Siriporn Charernkitpan, manager of PDS debating teams, said that the 1st TWSDC is the beginning of a series of collaborative efforts by the 12 participating schools to raise awareness of debating among teenagers. Assumption College has offered to host the next TWSDC.
Team of the match
PDS Team 2 won the championship by a 4-3 split decision from the 7-judge panel. Mohamed Mabrouq Azeez, chief adjudicator and champion of the 5th EU-Thailand National Intervarsity Debating Championship 2009, said that the opposition effectively demonstrated that civil disobedience is not the only weapon for opponents of the government and emphasized its position in a democracy.
"While RIS told us that civil disobedience is the tool of last resort, the opposition was able to prove that things such as petitions, parliamentary debates and voting can be utilised to equal or better effect, and therefore there is no need for actions that may lead to violence," explained the chief adjudicator.
"This motion is really relevant to Thailand today. I think this is what debating is about, when you have six high school students intellectually scrimmaging about issues that most adults have trouble grappling with. Thailand is in a situation where we need a generation like the present one," he said.
Other award recipients were, for instance, a team from Triam Udom Suksa School who won the EFL (English as a Foreign Language) grand champion prize. The team members were Kriti Tantasith, Nahathai Kiatwinyu, Nalatha-porn Chindaraksawong and Pat Apiwattanakul. Chanida from RIS won a prize for best speaker and Onusa Charuwana from PDS walked away with a Best Adjudicator Award.
The award presentation ceremony was presided over by former deputy education minister Chaiwuti Bannawat, who is currently industry minister.
This competition enabled competitors to master their critical-thinking and public-speaking skills and to build more self-confidence, opined the winning team. The team practised after class until 8pm every day for two weeks before the competition. It won the rookie class award at the 4th Thailand High School National Debating Championship held earlier at Assumption University.
"Team collaboration," said Pitchaporn, "Good preparation," said Kritin and "Step-by-step strategy," said Potchara, who were asked what factors contributed to their success. Nevertheless, they admitted that they should have analysed the case more deeply and should have responded more quickly to their counterparts' POIs.
Even though the RIS team did not win first prize, they said that they had gained a wide range of benefits from being in the debating community, including getting to meet people with the same interests, gaining well-rounded experience, and making friends, thereby buttressing their self-confidence.
"We did not expect to be in the final round. With more preparation, we could have improved on the debate," Chanida said with a little laugh.
It is clear that spreading a culture of debating among students will be a step forward to building a country where people talk to each other intelligibly, which leads to mutual understanding.
"Most of the kids here will be important leaders in the future. We can teach them now that each issue has different sides, that it is okay to disagree with supporting reasons and understanding, and that when you are done, you shake hands and respect each other. This is also what the adults in our country need to learn," said Phra Chainarong.
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