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Thailand

More propaganda won't help Thai education

Youth-led protests are changing things forever as they challenge the status quo

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Updated: October 28, 2020 05:41 AM GMT
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More propaganda won't help Thai education

Royalist supporters take part in a rally to show support for the Thai royal establishment in Bangkok on Oct. 27. (Photo: AFP)

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As tens of thousands of high school, vocational school, college and university students have been staging regular mass protests in Bangkok and around Thailand, calling for sweeping democratic reforms, the Education Ministry appears to think it has the answer about how to deal with the issue: amp up the state-sponsored propaganda already taught ad nauseam in schools.

The students may be calling for political reforms, but what they really need is a new Basic Education Core Curriculum, which will “promote an [appropriate] understanding among youth” about the country and its history, if we are to believe Supat Chumpathong, permanent secretary for education.

First up, Supat has announced, will be a change to educational content about the period following the Revolution of 1932 during which a group of Thais calling themselves Khana Ratsadon (Peoples’ Party) overthrew the government of King Rama VII and put an end to eight centuries of absolute monarchy.

Yet nearly a century on, it’s been back to the future. Countless young Thais, who poignantly call themselves Khana Ratsadon, are now demanding a thorough reform of the monarchy, which they argue retains absolutist powers thanks to supra-constitutional privileges.

As they are doing so, these courageous young souls are braving the prospect of long prison sentences as even the mildest criticism of the royals in Thailand can be punished by 15 years in prison owing to a draconian lese majeste law.

We can only hypothesize about the contents of the new curriculum, set to be launched in a year or so, but it’s safe to assume that it will be even heavier on nationalistic propaganda.

One telltale sign is that the state-sponsored idea of a “sufficiency economy,” which urges all Thais to live within their means, is due to feature even more prominently in the new curriculum. This in a country where the real issue for the poor is hardly a lack of sufficiency per se but grinding poverty. That and extreme inequality whereby the top 1 percent of the population owns two-thirds of the nation’s wealth.

“Not the sufficiency economy again? It cannot be taught as it is just a buzzword and doesn’t really mean anything,” one online commenter has aptly put it.

Thai schools have always been institutions where real learning has played second fiddle to indoctrination. Free thinking has long been discouraged in favor of uncritical obeisance to authority figures, including teachers whose every word is deemed to be sacrosanct.

Even asking questions in class is routinely frowned upon. Learners are expected to sit still silently as they listen to the pabulum that often passes for educational fare. Not surprisingly, despite living in one of the region’s wealthiest nations, Thai students invariably perform among the worst on tests in Southeast Asia when it comes to such essential skills as reading comprehension and English.

Many critics of the country’s parlous educational system argue that the dumbing down of education has been deliberate. It is intended, they say, to create a pliant populace that learns to know its place unquestionably in a feudalistic hierarchy where those at the top can lord it over those beneath as their birthright.  

Shortly after seizing power in a coup at the head of a junta in 2014, army chief turned prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered all schools to inculcate his “12 National Values” in all their students.

Rule 1 enjoins youngsters to “love the nation, religion and monarchy” — a code for accepting the current regime without question. Many of the other rules are equally suspect. They instruct children to “abide by the royal teaching,” to “live according to the idea of self-sufficiency,” and to sacrifice themselves “for the greater good,” as defined by their superiors.

It was largely in opposition to such rigid regimentation and expectations of mindless obedience in their schools that numerous young Thais started to rebel in recent years. They have now taken their fight far beyond their campuses and are challenging the military-allied government that they believe fosters such culture of blind obedience to itself at all educational institutions.

Whether the young rebels will succeed in achieving the democratic reforms they desire remains to be seen. They are up against a powerful alliance of military generals, officialdom and business dynasties that are desperate to preserve the status quo that has benefited them handsomely over the decades.

Yet now that young Thais, the future of their nation, are challenging that status quo in no uncertain terms, Thailand will never be the same again. And no ramped-up propaganda in schools will change that.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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