Fall into line, youngsters
As the military regime looks to impose its version of patriotism on the classroom, parents and experts fear the creation of a culture of ignorance
The general's "happiness" song rings out every morning on the assembly ground at an Isan public school, but not everyone is smiling about the singalong.
top-down teaching: Some educators fear they will have little input into the civics syllabus and that students will be exposed to a distorted account of history. Photos: BKK Post archive
One parent with two children at the school told Spectrum that if the students don't sing Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha's tune, Return Happiness to Thailand, they are threatened with cuts to their Thai-language grades.
"Some students told me they already have questioned what morning assembly is good for as teachers often make them stand for 30-45 minutes in the sun without much educational value — that, coming from a kid, is very critical," said the parent.
"My main concern is the kids, including my own, around here have no chance to experience a proper education and instead are going through a surreal neo-Orwellian nightmare that represents everything that rings alarm bells with any concerned parent."
The National Council for Peace Order's plan to instil in Thai children a sense of civic duty and patriotism via education reforms is well in train. Civic duty will be extracted from the broader topic of social studies and become a subject in its own right later this year.
But the parent in Isan, who asked to remain anonymous, said the attempted inculcation of young minds could be counterproductive and may force him to take his children out of the school.
He added that things such as patriotic marches, flag parades, the formation of "neo-fascist" youth cadres, criticism by teachers for lack of participation and threats to mark students down were "crossing the line".
"My main problem is the kids' frustration with all sorts of problems that originate in the education system will have the kids lose interest," he said. "This latest episode has only added to the kids silently doubting the value of much of what is offered by the education system."
GET THEM YOUNG
Education has now become a major focus for Gen Prayuth and his junta cohorts who believe that "Thai values" need to be instilled in youngsters via education reforms.
Gen Prayuth has listed the 12 values — which mirror many of those from two decades ago and include correct understanding of democracy, discipline and respect for the law and elders, and putting the public and national good above self-interest.
After the May 22 coup, the Ministry of Education website published the NCPO’s guidelines for education which read: "To promote patriotism and national interest among Thai youth. To promote love for the monarchy, pride in Thai history and ancestors and instil a sense of gratitude to the nation, not pushing for the way forward and abandoning the good of the past entirely.”
From the second semester of this year, starting in November, 40 hours of annual instruction in civic duty will be introduced for Pratom 1 to Matthayom 3, and 80 hours over three years for Matthayom 4-6 pupils.
Veteran educator Winai Rodjai is leading the working committee under the Education Ministry to introduce the new subject. He says no new textbooks will be ready when the subject starts being taught, but all teachers should be ready to instruct the pupils.
"We want all teachers to take part in this subject next semester," Mr Winai said. "For example, a Thai teacher can teach about electoral processes and rights. We will begin tutoring teachers around October.”
Asked whether this is due to an insufficient number of teachers to handle the new subject and the limited timeframe set by the NCPO, Mr Winai replied, "No."
"Civic duty is not a skilled subject like science or English that needs specialised teaching personnel," he said. "The heart of it is to create good citizens, so everyone must take part.”
Atthapol Anantaworasakul, an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University's education faculty, is also a member of the working committee. He is not opposed to teaching civic duty as a separate subject, but is concerned that teachers won't be prepared in time.
“The Civic Duty Working Committee is now in a rush to release some sort of guidelines for the 600,000 teachers nationwide in time for the beginning of the second semester in November," he said. "My biggest concerns are that teachers will not be prepared enough in the limited time of less than four months and we are not going to have a trial period."
Mr Atthapol said the civic duty syllabus will be completed this month. It will be sent to the Office of Basic Education Commission which will try and test it at selected regional schools. After receiving feedback, the working committee will make a final conclusion before the teacher tutoring begins.
STUDENTS ON PARADE
The education reforms and other activities to promote national reconciliation amongst the nation's youth are being overseen by the NCPO's social and psychological working group chaired by the navy chief, Adm Narong Pipatanassai.
Apart from the new subject of civic duty, history lessons will be given "primary focus" in terms of classroom content, Mr Winai said.
"We will use the current textbook for the civic duty subject, but we will put more emphasis on patriotism, one’s roles, duties and rights, as well as different opinions that will not be taken as conflict," he said. "We haven’t stressed these points enough.
“We are also discussing the increase of monarchy-related content in history lessons. We want children to know more about important royal figures,” Mr Winai said.
The military rulers have expressed concern about how the younger generation does not know about famous historical figures such as King Naresuan or selfless soldier Pantai Norrasingh.
King Naresuan declared Thailand’s independence from Burma in the 16th century and Pantai Norrasingh is revered as an example of responsibility, loyalty and sacrifice. After damaging the Ayutthaya King’s boat, Pantai offered his head as a punishment for the misdeed.
Some senior educators have expressed dismay that all students know about King Naresuan comes from films, and associate Pantai with a popular brand of chilli paste that bears his name.
Mr Winai said the working group would also release songs and video clips that "encourage patriotism". He said CDs of patriotic songs old and new will be sent to schools nationwide.
Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, 18, has earned fame and condemnation in recent years as an outspoken critic of the Thai education system, which he argues shackles free thinkers and discourages youngsters from challenging the status quo.
The founder of Education for Liberation of Siam group, he has submitted a letter to the permanent secretary for education, criticising him for blindly follow the NCPO's reform agenda.
Mr Netiwit says that in the current political situation, the education system faces the worst outcome. “Education can only be amended through engagement with students, teachers and academics, but as we are under military control, we no longer have the freedom to think and act. It is very sad,” he said.
“Society reflects education and vice versa, we are not under democratic rule now so I don’t think democracy will be reflected much through the teaching of history and civic duty in the classroom.”
The 2009 core national curriculum currently in use is designed to offer a level of independence for regional schools and local communities in the education of students.
It attempts to balance an appreciation for a student's Thai origins and culture, with the qualities of a "world citizen" who embraces differences without bias due to race or ethnicity.
Naming the course "civic duty" is misleading, said Mr Atthapol. He said civic duty needed to be taught in conjunction with democratic principles and institutions, the rule of law and human rights. Children have to be familiar with these concepts at an early age before developing a genuine respect for other people.
By separating the subject, the students’ ability to view the world from various angles can narrow.
“For example, how are you going to teach the Preah Vihear temple issue without taking politics and religion into account apart from the historical perspective of the topic?" he said.
"Civic duty, under the banner of social studies, complements content with political perspective relating to international relations, apart from the historical perspective about the place, the religious perspective about what sort of beliefs the temple represents or was built for, the geographical perspective concerning the aerial map of the temple and the economical perspective involving tourism.”
Mr Atthapol said the proposed education reforms were a top-down, centralised policy not in line with civic education in the 21st century which embraces differences and upholds respect for humanity.
He added that education has been used as a tool to spread political agendas, not only in Thailand, but in other countries, citing the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanking which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Chinese civilians.
“The Nanking massacre is always a controversial topic in Japanese education due to the denial by the Japanese authorities that it was a war crime. At times, it is absent from textbooks entirely. At other times, it is reinterpreted as less aggressive. Many Japanese find out about the event later in life, much to their shock. We do not want to see that sort of state-controlled dissemination of knowledge and information in Thailand."
Mr Atthapol said a "ready-made, singular, undisputed version of Thai history" would create ignorance in the classroom.
Thai students would not be equipped with ideas to make sound judgements on their own. He cited an incident in 2011 when a group of Chiang Mai students wore Nazi uniforms in a school parade as an example of the uncritical teaching of history. Teaching only the "heroic Thai version" of King Naresuan would not foster better understanding of our neighbours who have their own version.
Mr Atthapol said history and civic duty can instil a sense of patriotism, but usually it is a nationalistic tool for a political agenda. He said in the Thai language there is little distinction between patriotism and nationalism with both terms translated literally into Thai as “love your nation”.
Prominent Thai historian and former Thammasat University president Charnvit Kasetsiri knows all about the censoring of textbooks.
After the Oct 6, 1976 Thammasat University massacre, Mr Charnvit was tasked by textbook publisher Thai Watthanapanich to write a history textbook for secondary school students, but he faced numerous restraints.
Also as a lecturer at Thammasat, he was asked not to discuss politics or constitutional issues in class. The mentioning of communist countries such as China was also barred.
In his view, those restrictions are being repeated today.
“When I wrote a secondary school history textbook in 1981 it faced many problems before it was approved," he said.
"Many said it was too difficult for the students. However, the history that is taught in classes, both then and now, is not history. It is a myth, a narrative to spread state ideology the same way the free screening of a Thai-Burma war film was offered over and over again.”
He views the NCPO’s latest effort to revise education as a repetition of the nation-building efforts implemented by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) and FM Plaek Phibulsonggram.
"Royal Nationalism" reached its peak from 1910-1925 as Rama VI created a national scouting troop as a means to disseminate ideas of loyalty, discipline and sacrifice.
The campaign was launched in the context of declining monarchies worldwide; including the fall of China's Qing dynasty in 1911, the regicide of the tsar of Russia in 1917 and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. The idea of the monarchy being the centre of the nation began during his reign.
The three-coloured Thai flag was introduced, with blue, representing the monarchy, placed in the middle.
Plaek’s tenure as prime minister saw the inception of "military-bureaucratic nationalism" via patriotic songs and school textbooks written by his right-hand man and propagandist, Maj Gen Luang Wijit Watakarn.
The daily salute to the national anthem at 8am and 6pm in schools nationwide began during this period.
The campaign lasted until 1957 before FM Sarit Thanarath assumed power and introduced “hybrid nationalism”, mixing Rama VI and Plaek’s campaign together, with the monarchy as the centre of national power.
Mr Charnvit said the People's Alliance for Democracy and People's Democratic Reform Committee adopted this same approach to nationalism in their efforts to oust Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck.
This is exemplified in them adopting Luang Wijit's patriotic song Ton Trakul Thai (Thai ancestor), which highlights citizens sacrificing their lives for the good of the country.
He said the revision of history — whether classified as civic duty or propaganda — to use modern parlance, was simply public relations. "Basically, Thai education is all about injecting state ideology into the youth rather than it being about civic duty or history education. There is nothing academic about what the state is trying to do with education whatsoever.”
Mr Charnvit said to counter the "vertical, top-down approach of state ideology" what was needed was “popular nationalism”, where the concept of equality is central to nation-building.
He said popular nationalism was already taking root with the general public with "equality" the focus, instead of the version stressed by the PAD and PDRC under the guise of the "official" Thai history.
"Education, just like all sectors, is a stage for this proxy war between old/new powers, old/new money and old/new ideas between equality and inequality and it is intensifying," Mr Charnvit said.
"Only time will tell where we are heading as a nation.”
The 12 Thai values, generally speaking
1. Love for the monarchy, nation and religions.
2. Honesty, patience and good intentions for the public.
3. Gratitude to parents, guardians and teachers.
4. Perseverance in learning.
5. Conservation of Thai culture.
6. Morality and sharing with others.
7. Discipline and respect for the law and elders.
8. Correctly understanding democracy with the monarch as head of state.
9. Awareness in thinking and doing things, and following the guidance of His Majesty the King.
10. Living by His Majesty’s sufficiency economy philosophy.
11. Physical and mental strength against greed.
12. Concern about the public and national good above self-interest.