Above all, the lesson from school assemblies across Thailand is this: Fall into line. Above all, the main point of the frequently humiliating and sadly too often fatal induction and hazing ceremonies at universities across the country is this: The individual has no identity without the group. Above all, the reason for the education system’s emphasis on creating “the ideal Thai” is this: The perpetuation of the patronage system.
It has long been considered a truism that the Thai education system is broken, and successive governments have thrown increasing amounts of good money after bad without addressing the problem. Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha’s military regime is no exception, having raised the budget to 500 billion baht. The most likely outcome is not more of the same failures but an even more conservative education system.
The real problem here is that learning, like the development of society at large, comes about through a clash of ideas, a broad discussion of different points of view, and a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom and traditional sources of authority. This is rarely seen in Thai schools, where rote learning methods rule and where teachers are often blithely reading textbooks through a microphone to 40 or more students who are failing to pay attention. This is unlikely to change under the one-track military mindset of the new leadership, with navy commander Adm Narong Pipatanasai taking the helm as education minister.

The early signs were worrying. In June the Office of the Basic Education Commission (Obec) banned criticism of the junta in Thai public schools. Reports that some students’ grades were connected to them singing Gen Prayuth’s song Returning Happiness to Thailand were rightly greeted with astonishment and criticism — this has as little to do with academic achievement as keeping uniforms tucked in and hair neat and tidy.

More recent developments have been no less troubling. The appointment of Art-ong Jumsai Na Ayudhya — described by one media outlet as a “cult leader and UFO believer” — as the head of a national education reform panel drew a sharp rebuke from prominent academics. His doctorate of education, engineering qualifications and work with Nasa may in fact mean he is quite capable of doing a decent job, but his association with the pseudoscientific Ban Suan Pyramid movement and lectures about UFOs cast doubt on whether he is the right man to be writing the curriculum for the next generation.

Spending more money on education makes for a good headline, but the devil is in the details and one particularly troubling detail emerged last week. Obec prepared a submission to Adm Narong about the education of migrant students in the free public system, currently numbering 180,000 but expected to grow to 250,000 in three years. Despite being flush with cash after getting the biggest slice of the budget, Obec secretary-general Kamol Rodklai has proposed cutting the benefits available to these students, the children of the migrant workers who are so essential to the economy.

More specifically, the cuts would be to uniforms, textbooks and social activities such as scouting, while free tuition and other material support would be retained. By cutting funding for uniforms and textbooks, Obec might as well be telling these students to stay away from school altogether. The message is clear. It is to be hoped Adm Narong does not see migrant students as a threat to the nation and shuts down this frankly ludicrous and xenophobic proposal before it goes any further.

Not only would this alienate children for no good reason, but it is contrary to the idea that learning is about being exposed to different points of view. Migrants should be embraced in a pluralistic and tolerant society, and this should start at school.

Adm Narong would be wise to heed the words of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn when, speaking about refugee children, she argued a country could not afford for those within its borders to go without education. “In a supportive situation, these children may prosper from such diversity so early in life. However, in an alienating environment, children become confused and disenchanted with the whole concept of society. In the latter case, the bonds of society are usually severed along with the sense of community spirit, personal responsibility and respect for others.”

Obec has been charged by the junta with reforming the education system to create the ideal Thai, by which they mean someone who will fall into line. Historically, this has not been the case: Since long before the fall of Ayutthaya, Thailand has always been a place where waves of migration have contributed to society and culture.

The next generation also deserves to live in a pluralistic society where migrants are welcome, fresh ideas are embraced and old routines are questioned. Development, change and reform only come about from  those who dare to break ranks. Children are our future, and instead of being subjugated they need to be empowered.

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