Testing teachers in democracy 101
As students are graded on lining up to sing the national anthem, a Thammasat University course aims to broaden the way that schools define civic duty
In 20 years of teaching, nothing has given Taweewat Pimpat more joy than leading the military mandated civics class.
Apart from checking whether students are fidgeting while the national anthem plays at eight o’clock each morning, he takes pride in teaching Loeipittayakom School’s 520 Mathayom 6 students - equivalent to 12th grade - about their rights, duties and freedoms as Thai citizens. “I tell them that voting is a duty. But when we vote for someone as our representative, what is our responsibility?”
Having never been asked such a question, students at the largest state school in the northeastern province of Loei would stare at him with a puzzled look. “Why is there a need to be responsible?” they would ask.
“Do the candidates we vote for help build the nation or destroy it? It takes a minute to cast your vote on election day, while disregarding what these politicians do for the rest of their four-year term, and then re-elect them into office,” Mr Taweewat would answer, apparently referring to Thaksin Shinawatra and his proxy parties, which have won every national election since 2001.
Political scientists argue that one of the main reasons for conflict in Thai society today is that the very notion of democracy itself is widely misunderstood. To tackle this, academics decided to try and retrain social science teachers.
Mr Taweewat was among the 23 high school teachers who signed up for Thammasat University’s five-day course on teaching democracy, held between March 30 and April 3. It was the second time the university had run the 2,500 baht course, and there are plans for it to become an annual event.
Prajak Kongkirati, a lecturer at Thammasat’s political science faculty, designed the course to bridge the gap between university and high school education in social sciences.
“The political concept that is most often talked about but confuses people the most is the notion of democracy,” Mr Prajak said. “Knowledge of social sciences in Thailand is a tool the state uses to control people, rather than a tool that results in critical thinking. Therefore in the long run, if we want to create a democratic society, we need to start with education.”
Lead-in: Protesters march beneath a giant Thai flag during a rally aimed at unseating the Prime Minister of Thailand. Anti-Government protesters led by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee’s (PDRC) marched towards Government House in Bangkok on Monday 9th December, 2013, where they heard the news that Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, brother of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, had announced the dissolution of the Thai Parliament, leading to new elections. Photo: Gavin Gough/NurPhoto
HOPE FOR CHANGE
Ask a Thai high school student about the meaning of democracy and they would most likely respond with the textbook definition that borrows Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase: democracy is a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”.
Understanding what it really means, however, is another matter.
For the past two years, Mr Prajak has heard all manner of misconceptions surrounding the term from the 40-50 students he has interviewed for Thammasat’s political science entrance exams.
“You get students who believe that democracy only applies to the Western world, and then others who equate the concept with disagreement and conflict,” Mr Prajak said. “Social science is difficult to teach, because often children have acquired a certain type of belief from their families, resulting in a need to unlearn old rules and relearn new ones.”
Although Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy under a parliamentary democracy since 1932, in which the King serves as the head of state, the country has undergone 19 coups or coup attempts since. In January, US-based Freedom House downgraded Thailand’s freedom rating from “partly free” in 2013 to “not free” last year because of the post-coup restrictions of freedom of expression and assembly.
And yet on March 17, Prime Minister and coup-leader Prayut Chan-o-cha said that the country was 90% democratic. Six days later, he said it was a 99% democracy.
Lead-in: The class observing a live National Legislative Assembly session at the parliament (photo courtesy of the parliament)
ONE MAN, ONE VOTE
On day one of the course, when Kasian Tejapira explained to the 23 teachers that a democracy means that the side with the most votes wins, high school teacher Nathabon Chaikla raised his hand with a question.
“I wonder why a former Thammasat professor suggested that the votes of Bangkokians are superior to rural voters?” Mr Nathabon asked, apparently referring to celebrity protest leader Seri Wongmontha, who is also a former dean of the university’s faculty of journalism and mass communication.
Although Mr Nathabon teaches Buddhism to Matthayom 5 students at Rajavinitbangkhen School in Bangkok, he incorporates the concept of democracy into the curriculum.
In order to help his students understand equality, for instance, he tells them that all social classes can be ordained as a monk. Upali, the son of a low-caste barber, was one of the 10 chief disciples to have been ordained by the Buddha.
A common message that echoed throughout Thammasat’s democracy course was that it doesn’t matter if the majority made a “wrong” decision. There is simply no better method that allows people with differences of opinion to coexist, the teachers were told.
The question brought up a broader issue concerning equality in Thai society, which Mr Kasian believes is the basis of democratic values.
“Thailand’s democracy has had its ups and downs because those in power are not able to tolerate the fact that [the red shirts] are always winning the elections,” he said. “But the losers have the right to fight back in a peaceful manner, wait for the next election and hope that next time, the voters will switch sides. This is what democracy gives us.”
Part of the civic duty class.
Recent political events have stirred fierce debate among high school students, ranging from exchanging heated remarks across classrooms to cyber bullying and death threats on Facebook.
Whenever Mr Nathabon mentions Thaksin during his classes, students who dislike the deposed prime minister start to boo. Students also report teachers who appear to be showing enthusiasm towards a certain political camp, and parents tend to inform school administrators of alleged biases.
The same goes for Rungrath Yairit, who teaches history and geography at Saard Paderm Wittaya School in Chumphon province.
“Parents criticise teachers for not pointing out who is right and wrong,” she said. “But in politics, you can’t do that.”
But while the terms "difference of opinion" and "conflict" carry negative connotations, experts argue that Thais misunderstand them.
The army-led National Council for Peace and Order, which staged a coup against the elected but embattled government of Thaksin’s sister Yingluck last May, expects its “road to reform” will end the turbulence that has plagued the country’s colour-coded politics for the past decade.
Political scientist Chaiwat Satha-Anand, however, remains sceptical about whether reconciliation can be easily achieved in the present context. Leading a discussion of conflict, he encouraged the 23 teachers to seek out a more nuanced explanation of what a difference of opinion really means.
“What will happen if we say conflict is good? What if it’s bad?” he asked the group.
The teachers, aged from their early twenties to mid-fifties, engaged in a lively but respectful debate, although the younger ones tended to be quieter. One male teacher from Chaiyaphum used an iPhone attached to a selfie stick to take pictures of the instructors’ slides, while another two were seen constantly taking selfies.
The course leaders discussed the idea that conflict is abnormal, providing a justification for its eradication.
“But if we say it is natural, what is the result?” asked Mr Chaiwat, who is also the director of the Peace Information Centre. “For instance, if we say that death is natural, what questions will we ask and not ask regarding death?”
The discussion meandered into questions about life after death and the time of death.
“You see, all these answers are related to life. If we believe that death is natural, the question is not how to eradicate it, so prevention is out of the question,” Mr Chaiwat said.
“It’s all about living with conflict, not eradicating it.”
Democracy, he concluded, is designed to help society coexist with conflict over the question of who governs society, and prevents it from escalating into violence. Thus the army’s handling of conflict as an “enemy” of the state might backfire in the long run.
“Reconciliation is like love. You can’t force it to happen,” Mr Chaiwat said.
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE THAI
The NCPO’s plan to instil a sense of civic duty in Thai children via education gained pace in November last year, when it was extracted from the broader topic of social studies to become a subject in its own right.
Mr Taweewat was assigned to teach the civic duty subject to all 520 Mathayom 6 students in Loeipittayakom School.
“Teaching this class makes me happy, because it helps change the behaviour of students,” he said with a smile.
The NCPO created guidelines for schools, listing five areas: Thainess; love of the monarchy, nation and religions; being a good citizen under democracy with the monarch as head of state; reconciliation; and discipline and responsibility towards oneself and society.
Mr Taweewat allocates 90% of the grades based on practice over theory.
Before the subject was taught, 82% of the Mathayom 6 students would participate in morning activities in front of the Thai flag. This includes lining up, singing the national anthem and saying prayers.
Attendance at morning activities is marked.
“If a student fails to stand still, does not say his or her prayers or does not sing the national anthem, the whole class will receive a point deduction. This way, the students will monitor themselves,” Mr Taweewat said with an evident sense of passion.
After one semester of civic duty, the participation rate reached 92%. Class attendance rose from 95% to 99%, while cleanliness increased from 88% to 99%. The scores are posted in front of each classroom.
This semester, Mr Taweewat will start teaching Thai manners.
This includes the steps of a proper wai traditional greeting, paying respect to teachers that students are not familiar with and helping carry their belongings.
But Chalidaporn Songsamphan, an associate professor at Thammasat’s political science faculty who also taught during this year’s course, sees the focus on conformity as dangerous.
“While there are probably some benefits, the focus on order and discipline shows that [the NCPO] sees freedom as dangerous," she said. "This way of thinking is against the view of those who believe in liberalism.”
NOT A DEMOCRACY
The teaching environment in Thai schools has raised alarm bells for Nutthanut Leaupiroj, founder of Kru-Pop’s Social Studies School and one of the course participants.
Students are not encouraged to ask questions or criticise their friends’ presentations. Neither are they allowed to choose what they wish to study or how they are graded — a form of negotiation Mr Nutthanut considers as having the largest impact on students.
“But without the power to negotiate, students are required only to perform their duties and are deprived of rights,” he said. “The flowers of democracy have never bloomed in schools.”
Even the five focus areas of the civic duty class contain no element of democracy, Mr Nutthanut said.
“It is plagued with a high degree of nationalism and conservatism — ideas that are contrary to the principles of democracy,” he said.
Mr Nutthanut criticised social science teachers for not being up to date in matters of the world, resulting in a cultural lag when it comes to teaching. He encourages them to adopt a more modern and globalised view on nationalism and “Thainess”. Instead of seeing the wai as the epitome of Thai manners, for instance, educators could talk about elevator etiquette.
“And then there’s the concept of love for the nation — we sure have weird definitions for that term,” Mr Nutthanut said. “But could it also mean not using plastic bags?”
GOOD POLITICS, BAD POLITICS
On the fourth day of the course, Mr Prajak took the teachers, most wearing purple, to the Thai National Assembly Museum, which is located in the parliamentary precinct in the Dusit area.
Speaking about how historical knowledge is passed on to young Thais, he noted that the information taught has not changed for the past 30-40 years.
Gen Prayut, for instance, has stated publicly that Thai people were originally from the Altai Mountains, but the theory of mass migration from Central Asia has already been debunked.
In history classes, little is provided on the 1932 revolution, and the Oct 6, 1976, Thammasat University massacre is not mentioned in textbooks. There is only one sentence mentioning the Oct 14, 1973, pro-democracy uprising.
“[The government] wants everyone to think alike, and along the lines of the government, when in fact citizens have the right and freedom to question those in power,” Mr Prajak said.
“When the NCPO wants to create passive citizens, that means they want their subjects to be tamed.”
This, coupled with the view that a lack of morals and ethics among politicians is partly to blame for the crises and corruption besetting the country, has resulted in the proposed establishment of a “national ethics assembly”.
Which brings up a long-standing question: what if Shinawatra supporters want to vote for the Pheu Thai Party again, even after it attempted to pass the controversial blanket amnesty bill?
Do they need to be held accountable for choosing “bad” politicians? The answer, it turns out, is not that clear-cut.
“People do not judge the government from just one policy,” Mr Prajak said.
“When the Democrat Party was in government, they ordered a violent military crackdown on red shirt protesters.
"Still, many people in Bangkok and the southern region voted for them.” n