Young minds soldier on for Children's Day
On this Children's Day, what are we hoping for our children?
On this Children's Day — actually two days before — I heard a chorus of children sing a moral anthem on the radio at 6pm, in that slot of aural fascism when your tuner betrays your basic right of the choice of music and instead forces you to have an earful of nationalist gospel.
On this Children's Day, we have the Bangkok Planetarium organising Asean-themed activities, with an emphasis on — I have a hard time seeing the connection — the 12 Values as prescribed by the prime minister. Constellations, Asean, and the dozen platitudes, having them all under the same star-filled dome sounds unlikely at best, and absurd at worst.
On this Children's Day, we have the annual motto bestowed by the prime minister: "Knowledge and Virtue Lead You to the Future". You can't deny its wisdom. You also can't deny its dullness. Every year, regardless of the democratic dignity of different premiers, the motto has always been stale, trite, predictable, a recycling of key words that mean everything and nothing. My suggestion is to have a forum where children can come up with their own mottos — there can be more than one, and the government is obliged to announce them even though they contain words like "Pokemon", "hormonal confusion", "cosplay" and other expressions of youthful idealism more exciting than the 12 Values.
This Children's Day — this is the highlight — tanks roll into town. For at least four decades, this has always been the headline act of government-sponsored activities, again, regardless of whether the government is elected or coup-appointed. Parking tanks near the parliament (isn't that foreboding?) and letting kids climb up to play with the military gear and maybe guns (hopefully not loaded) is a quaint relic of the dictatorial era; film footage from Children's Day in 1968, when Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn was PM, shows children playing on a tank as if it was a giant toy, laughing merrily, though it's likely the practice had begun years before that. The scene is being repeated today. Most toys in the 21st century come with a warning, but of course when the toy is provided by the state with fanfare, what parents need is wholehearted encouragement and not a wisp of caution. Go on, baby, fire!
So on this Children's Day, the symbolism is so apt, so barefaced, so unsettling: If children are our future, our future is inseparable from the military. When tanks are toys, boys will likely to grow up believing in guns. And in a decade when guns are causing so much grief, here as well as in Paris and Pakistan, where 132 children were recently killed, or in Norway in 2011, where nearly 70 children were shot dead — in this decade of confusion and death, to blithely push military gear into young hands is not just weird. It's an example of mindless fatalism and plainly dangerous.
On this Children's Day, the army has moved "armaments including armoured cars, various types of tanks, artillery pieces, and Humvee trucks for the exhibition", as this newspaper reported. Unsuspecting visitors might think this was a re-enactment of the Battle of the Bulge or the Siege of Stalingrad (actually the army warned about the mobilisation last week and told us not to panic). Since the navy has demanded the purchase of three submarines, next year we'll have periscopes and perhaps torpedoes added to the agenda.
On this Children's Day, I wonder why fathers don't get to play with tanks on Father's Day (and mothers on Mother's Day). Why only children? Certainly fathers and mothers possess a higher degree of judgement and won't easily stray onto the path of militarism, a path lit by the sparks of explosions and gunfire, a path that only runs into a dead or very dangerous end.
On this Children's Day, I wonder if children in the deep South will feel the urge to play with tanks like Bangkok kids do, or if the military will allow them to get near their Humvees. Down there, tanks don't look like toys. They look like what they're designed to look like: scary, oppressive, war-worthy, life-threatening, anything but fun.
Finally, on this Children's Day, children can climb down from the tanks and head over to the PM's Office to sit on the prime ministerial chair. It's another tradition to let kids take turns feeling the warmth of the seat of power. In our January chill, this feels like another fitting metaphor: from tanks to prime ministership, from the barracks straight to the dignified, unelected chair. If that's the path we want to pave for our future leaders on this day, if that's the official message being sent to children, maybe they should just stick to Pokemon and cosplay.
Kong Rithdee is Deputy Life Editor, Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post columnist
Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.