28 weeks later: An education fit for a zombie?
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28 weeks later: An education fit for a zombie?

Thailand’s junta gets top marks on education spending, but fails to promote critical thinking in its students, writes Jack Radcliffe

We are now 28 weeks into the post-coup ‘reform before election’ period demanded by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), how are things going so far? With regards to education, the major initiative of the junta has been to emphasize the need to inculcate the ’12 core values of Thai people’ into every schoolchild in the land. Presumably, the thinking behind this is that Thailand’s recent turbulence has been due to a lack of Thainess in the citizenry and that a unified mass is going to be a more orderly one.

Thailand’s education system frequently ranks poorly, falling behind even much-maligned Laos in a recent global education report. The cause of such lowly rankings is usually considered due to the limited critical faculties engendered by the Thai school system. Rote learning and unquestioningly following the orders of those with authority may help teachers to manage large numbers of students in under-resourced classrooms, but these attributes do not help create adults able to compete in an increasingly global marketplace; especially as Thailand becomes, theoretically at least, more open with the advent of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in late 2015. In this context, encouraging greater rote learning and deference to authority can only be seen as a retrograde step.

But how are the 12 values actually being taught in schools? While not yet officially part of the Thai national curriculum (which is to be issued in May 2015 and last through 2021), schools are being encouraged to incorporate them into lessons wherever possible, place them on walls and have students recite them on a daily basis. In addition, Civic Duty is a new addition to students’ learning timetables and ‘selective history’ with emphasis on the country’s past glories will be given ‘primary focus’ in the classroom.

Two people who are no longer part of history are the former Prime Ministers Shinawatra who have literally been erased from history textbooks, presumably to make way for more information about Thailand’s glorious pre-Shinawatra history. Textbook Orwell. Such historical revisionism has been long standing in Thailand, with each coup leader seeking to legitimize their own rule by claiming the moral high ground and stressing the need for unity in the form of increased Thainess, usually defined as unquestioning loyalty to the three pillars of Thai society: Nation, Religion, Monarchy.

While all nations seek to perpetuate a form of national identity through their education systems, Thainess has often been used as a weapon to quell dissent by identifying those who question any of the three pillars as not Thai, attempting to cause disunity and, therefore, undeserving of a place in the public discourse. This argument was used to justify the crackdown on dissident farmers in the 1960/70s, the 1976 Thamassat massacre, and the Red Shirt deaths of May 2010, as well as this year’s coup and the repression of free speech which has followed.

The present logic goes that the junta is protecting the three pillars; thus, any criticism of the junta is an attack on the nation and a danger to unity.

As with all aspects of the junta’s societal reforms, opposition is not allowed and General Prayuth went so far as to say that all criticism of the junta must be stopped. Education Minister Admiral Narong Pipatanasa – who ironically, but perhaps accurately, compared Thailand’s education system to North Korea’s – wondered if a student group might be ‘abnormal’ after demonstrations were held to oppose the indoctrination of the 12 values upon them. The junta contacted the school of the leader of the protests to find out more information about these possibly seditious children. Hopefully they were not invited in for ‘attitude adjustment’.

As well as the 12 values, patriotic songs are being played in schools, including Return Happiness to Thailand, written by General Prayuth himself. The Bangkok Post reported that students who refuse to join in by singing these songs are threatened with cuts to their Thai-language grades. One parent quoted described the reforms as ‘neo-Orwellian’ and removing the chance of a proper education for her children.

Of course those with enough money can choose to send their children to expensive private schools, which are not required to follow the Thai national curriculum. One parent of an international school child quoted by Reuters said that he could do without patriotism and morality classes. This parent is unlikely to be encouraging the recital of Return Happiness to Thailand when algebra homework is due.

With General Prayuth acting as a benevolent patriarchal figure to the nation, reforming with the best of intentions towards national unity, it is interesting to consider the lessons he learned from actual fatherhood. The musical General’s daughters were presumably free to express themselves creatively as they were in a girl band and Western educated, while their dream of becoming musicians was facilitated by building a soundproof room in the family home, perhaps the birthplace of Return Happiness to Thailand?

So what grade does the junta get on education reform? From the perspective of the PDRC, probably an A+. PDRC members believed that a large percentage of the electorate did not have “a true understanding of democracy”, which the ‘good people’ of the junta are now trying to rectify by teaching the nation’s children to be the kind of good people who do what they are told by those in authority. As far as helping to rectify the failings of Thailand’s education system, top marks for giving the largest portion of the budget to education, amounting to a larger percentage of GDP than Germany spends. As far as addressing the lack of critical faculties (with critique of the government outlawed), becoming less insular in order to compete globally as part of the AEC, and being able to think independently without fear of questioning authority – must try harder.

About the author:
Jack Radcliffe is a Bangkok-based anthropologist focusing on contemporary Thailand.


The 28 Weeks Later series – Thailand 6 months after the coup:

Introduction: 28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand
Part 1: Economic stability comes at a cost under Thailand’s military junta
Part 2: Prayuth, censorship and the media in post-coup Thailand
Part 3: An education fit for a zombie?
Part 4: Are Thai people really happy after the coup?
Part 5: Thailand’s junta and the war on corruption
Part 6: PDRC myths and Thailand’s privileged ‘new generation’
Part 7: Thailand tourism down, but not out
Part 8: Education reform in Thailand under the junta
Part 9: 28 weeks later in post-coup Thailand: Some personal thoughts