Tag Archives: students

Culture of dictatorship responsible for Thai education failings

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

While conservative newspapers like the Bangkok Post agonise over the state of the Thai education system, complaining about the inability of students to engage in critical thinking, they cannot identify the most important cause of this problem: the culture of dictatorship.

Today, anyone who criticises the military junta is faced with repression, insults from the authorities, or short stretches in military camps undergoing “attitude changing sessions”. The military are present at all levels of society, enforcing dictatorship down to grass-roots levels. Last year, the mere distribution of red plastic bowls at Songkran was enough to invite arrest.

However, when I talk about the culture of dictatorship in Thai society, I do not mean just the fact that the country is ruled by a military junta today and for long periods in the past. This is an important part of this appalling culture, but it is only one aspect.

The draconian lèse-majesté law, which forbids any critical thinking about the monarchy, is part of this culture of dictatorship even when there are elected civilian governments. The extreme right-wing ideology of “Nation, Religion and Monarchy”, enforced in all schools and constantly promoted by the military, is part of this. The ingrained hierarchical nature of Thai society, where citizens have to crawl on the floor before the royals, where lower-class people have to bow their heads and show respect to those who are richer and more powerful than themselves, and where all this nonsense is decreed to be “Thai Culture”, cannot possible encourage critical thinking.

Long periods when it was deemed to be a “crime” to be a communist or socialist also blocked off the flowering of alternative viewpoints in open society. “National Security”, for the elites, is used to silence dissent. The idea of “one Thai nation” was not even challenged by the Communist Party because of its nationalistic ideology. Public playing of the National Anthem and the fact that citizens are forced to stand to attention at 8am and 6pm mean that there is no room for critical thinking about Thai nationalism. This is reinforced by the extremely high levels of official racism.

Until recently, people were afraid to admit to being atheists on official documents because it would lead to accusations of being a communist. This is part of the culture of dictatorship.

The weakness of trade unions in Thai society is linked to the main stream anti-socialist ideology. This in turn strengthens hierarchy and undermines alternative views about society which could encourage critical thinking.

Justification for military coups and so-called “reforms”, which decrease the democratic space, send out a message that citizens are “too stupid” to be allowed to choose their own governments. The middle-class reactionaries claim the people are not ready for democracy because of poor education. Therefore they need to be educated “in the right way”. Of course, this is a lie. Lack of democracy, caused by the actions of the elites, is the real obstacle to critical thinking.

Given that no mainstream newspapers or TV stations and no mainstream academics ever question this culture of dictatorship, it is a wonder that any young students can learn to think for themselves. Even the term “think for yourself” has been hijacked by the dictatorship to imply that those who have dissenting views are somehow brain-washed by people like Taksin and therefore those who “think for themselves” must obviously agree with the military and the conservatives.

Yet, as a former university lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, and a follower of Thai current affairs, I know that each generation of young Thais throws up critical thinkers. But it takes courage to do this. Today there are young students locked away in Thai jails for thinking for themselves, most are charged with lèse-majesté.

Apart from the culture of dictatorship, inequality in education is also a factor helping to keep the Thai education system in a poor state. This was highlighted by a couple of Finish educational researchers recently. But here the issue is closely linked to the culture of dictatorship because this culture exists to entrench inequality and to protect the elites. Those who have taken part in the destruction of democracy in Thailand are extreme neo-liberals who are totally opposed to a welfare state, progressive taxation or increasing wages. They justify all this with free-market ideology, including the former king’s reactionary “Sufficiency Economy”. Finland’s high education standards are a result of a welfare state, strong trade unions and a history of democracy.

The struggle to educate oneself, and the struggle to liberate oneself, are part of the same struggle. Thai citizens do not need to be fed “better” education by conservative experts, they need to throw off the chains of the culture of dictatorship.

Prayut’s little toy soldiers in Thai universities

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Every year, with each intake of new students to Thai universities, the “SOTUS” system rears its ugly head. SOTUS stands for “Seniority, Order, Tradition, Unity, Spirit”, qualities which would warm the cockles of Generalissimo Prayut’s heart. It is a system of “hazing” based on cruelty, torture, de-humanisation and abuse of power by senior students against first years. It originates in the worst institutions of the U.S.A. and may have come to Thailand via the Philippines.

Recently a young lecturer at Mahasarakarm University spoke out about these abuses and was inundated with violent and sexist threats from various people, the worst coming from an ex-student. Fortunately, it became a national issue and more progressive students from her university rallied round to support her. Yet so long as armed thugs in uniform control Thai society and demand and enforce “Seniority, Order, Tradition, Unity, Spirit” via coup d’états and draconian laws like lèse-majesté, the system will remain in place.

Not only will it remain in place because of the climate of authoritarian rule, but it is also reinforced by petty-minded senior students who get their kicks from bossing younger people around. Shockingly it is also reinforced by many members of staff in universities who seem to feel that they have an interest in maintaining this brutal nonsense. Usually it is lecturers who have been through the SOTUS system themselves and are now teaching in the same universities where they were students. These staff will dock “behaviour points” from students who refuse to take part in the hazing activities.

When I wrote an article in a Thai daily newspaper attacking the SOTUS system back in 2002, I also received much abuse, although not on a level experienced by Lalita Harnwong, the Mahasarakarm lecturer.

Back in 2002, I was teaching at Chulalongkorn University and in the late afternoons, as I walked to catch public transport home, I would hear noises similar to those emitted by wild animals or hooligans coming from locked class rooms where first year students were imprisoned in unbearable heat. The air-conditioning was turned off and they were being subjected to shouts and abuse by seniors. Each day for weeks this would happen. Outside, around the flag pole, groups of male seniors would often be seen bullying individual young female students, ordering them to run backwards and forwards, sit down or stand up. All the new students were forced to learn the stupid university and faculty songs. Any student who refused to take part would be ostracised. Threats were made that their future career progressions after graduating would be blocked by the “old boys’ network”.

On one occasion, one of my lectures ran 15 minutes over time and my students were then subjected to punishment for arriving late for torture sessions by the self-appointed senior “toy soldiers”, fresh out of nappies, who were running the hazing. These seniors never turned up to lectures on time.

One ridiculous argument in favour of the SOTUS system is that it is supposed to encourage team spirit and unity. But it is a unity defined by oppressors and based on coercion and brutality. It involves breaking the spirit of young people. It is more like turning the new intake of students into a “herd” of mindless sub-humans. It is very closely related to the kind of military training that turns conscripts into unquestioning and cold-blooded murderers.

If the school education system has not already destroyed all individuality, originality, confidence, imagination or any love of enquiry among students, the SOTUS system is designed to finish the job. University students in Thailand are forced to wear “school uniforms”. Women must not wear trousers and anyone in flip flops is banned from libraries. It is as though the university authorities want to do everything except ensure that young people receive a decent education. What a great advertisement for the quality of Thai universities!

The good news is that there is a long tradition of struggle against SOTUS among progressive students. In the 1970s, when huge waves of radicalisation swept through universities and schools throughout the world, and Thai students over threw the military dictatorship of the time, SOTUS disappeared. It returned with a vengeance when the brutal reaction against democracy occurred in the late 1970s, early 1980s.

Today there are signs of resistance too. Not only do we have young lecturers speaking out, we also have the student protests against the junta. The secondary school student, who dared to stand up and ask Prayut a question about education, is a prime example. He was immediately bundled out of the room, but his message was spread by social media and some mainstream media. Prit Chiwaruk asked why Thai students were not allowed to study philosophy and ethics so that they could think for themselves. He decried the fact that schools force-fed “the duty of citizens” to all pupils instead.

The demise of the Red Shirts?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The arrest and imprisonment of 14 pro-democracy student activists has exposed the state of the “democracy movement” in Thailand.

In a previous post on this site I explained that the student activists had “thrown down a challenge” to all of us. That challenge was whether or not people were prepared to rebuild a mass movement to overthrow the dictatorship. Make no mistake, the Prayut dictatorship is planning to cast its ugly shadow on Thai politics well beyond the day that the murderous military gang formally step down from office and allow so-called elections under their deformed rules.

The junta are now jack-booting their way into peoples’ houses or offices and threatening anyone associated or related to the students. They are telling other activists to stop criticising the junta on social media and they are putting pressure on the media to stop reporting anti-junta activities.

Therefore the question of how to get rid of the dictatorship is extremely important.

Up until now the response from concerned pro-democratic citizens has been to visit the students in prison, hold candle-light vigils and to stage “symbolic” solidarity via the internet. This is all very laudable, but it will not build the necessary mass movement to fight for democracy. Much more can and needs to be done.

So what about the Red Shirts? The response has been a deathly silence.

The Red Shirt movement was the largest pro-democracy social movement in Thailand’s history. Millions of ordinary people took part in protests to expand the democratic space. They were not merely “ignorant pawns of Taksin”, as the reactionaries claimed. They were fighting for their rights and their dignity. But they were led by a leadership which was close to Taksin and which has now decided to capitulate to the military. The tragedy of the Red Shirts is that most of the left-wing progressive Red Shirts, who had rejected Taksin and the UDD leaders, refused to organise a coherent alternative political organisation to challenge the UDD leaders.

In a previous post on this site I also explained that according to Marxists like myself, various pro-democracy movements from below should be seen as one big social movement with many arms and legs, constantly changing through time. The Red Shirts were a continuum of past pro-democracy movements such as the People’s Party that overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932, the pro-democracy uprisings against the military in 1973 and 1992 and the communist inspired civil war in the late 1970s.

The key point is that the various forms of the social movement are not permanent. They rise up, peak and then disappear. This is what has happened to the Red Shirts as a movement. As I mentioned above, a key reason is the decision by the UDD leaders to “turn off” the movement. Once a movement is de-mobilised it is very difficult to re-mobilise it in its original state. Another reason for the demise of the Red Shirts is the bloody crack-down against them by Prayut and his military friends in 2010.

However, just because the Red Shirt movement is dead, that does not mean that individual Red Shirts cannot be reinvigorated in a new movement for democracy. It is to be hoped that this will happen along with drawing in new forces to build the new movement under a more progressive grass-roots leadership.

One view about the relationship between Red Shirts and the student activists, which needs to be vigorously opposed, is that the students are somehow a “pure force”, unlike the Red Shirts who are “tainted by Taksin”. Many students may wear white shirts, which form part of their university uniforms, but they are hardly a “sterile generation, uninfected by politics”. Those that fear that the middle-classes will be “put off” from supporting the students if Red Shirts join the solidarity movement are proposing a self-limiting movement which is doomed to failure. The middle-classes can only be wooed by advocating limitations on democracy.

The people who talk about students as a “pure force” naïvely hope that some yellow shirts and members of Sutep’s anti-democratic mob will rally round the students. This is an example of banal politics. It fails to grasp the fact that Thai society is deeply divided between the elites and their middle class allies, who are violently opposed to freedom and democracy, and ordinary working people in the towns and in rural areas, who struggle for freedom and social justice. The new student activists are part of this pro-democracy side of the divide. The divide cannot be bridged without one side or the other being subdued. There is no democratic compromise between authoritarianism and freedom. Fifty percent democracy is no democracy.

It is vital to rebuild the democracy mass movement by uniting the ordinary working people in the towns and in rural areas, who were Red Shirts, with the new student activists and others who have previously not been actively involved in any movement.

Pro-democracy students throw down a challenge to all of us and themselves

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The brave young pro-democracy student activists, who call themselves the “New Democracy Movement” and the “Dao-Din” students, have thrown down a challenge to all of us and also to themselves. In a statement read out the day before they were arrested and sent to a military court for just peacefully demanding freedom and democracy, they made the following call to all of us who want an end to this vile military dictatorship.

“We understand very well that you may not feel ready to come out and fight in the open. We understand if you have fear in your hearts. We also harbour that fear. But you can no long remain silent and inactive because by doing that in the face of the junta’s illegitimate use of power, you end up condoning the regime by your silence. Our struggle today will be meaningless if you remain passive. You might not feel that the state of affairs has had a negative impact on you right now, but we all know that this cannot remain the case forever. Do not wait until it is too late and there is no one left who is prepared to fight.”

One thing is clear: it is no longer enough to praise these young activists and wish them well. If we remain as mere spectators, viewing some symbolic defiance of the junta by the students, the dictatorship can never be overthrown.

But merely making a call for action, in the way that these activists have done, does not automatically result in a mass uprising against the military. The act of merely writing this short article which you are now reading is also not going to result in an uprising.

We need to learn from the lessons of the 14th October 1973 uprising against the dictatorship, when half a million students and working people came out on to the streets of Bangkok and faced down tanks and guns and beat the military. That uprising was sparked by the arrests of pro-democracy activists. But there are some crucial differences.

We can obviously ignore the infantile stupidity of Generalissimo Prayut when he said that “today is not like the 16th October”. In Thailand, people who refer to the “16th of October” show a total ignorance of Thai history. The uprising against the military in the 1970s took place of the 14th October BE2516. The repressive back-lash that destroyed those hard won freedoms took place three years later on 6th October BE 2519. The “16th of October” therefore has no meaning. For all his Thai nationalism, Prayut knows nothing of Thai history.

But we must take seriously a mistaken view among some of the student activists today who believe that the difference between 1973 and today is the power of the media and the internet. Certainly there was no internet in those days, but people still knew what was going on.

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One of the most important lessons from the 14th October 1973 uprising was that it did not just arise out of thin air. Students and workers in those days had mass organisations and the anger at the military repression fed into those mass organisations and resulted in half a millions people being pulled on to the streets. Added to this was the political influence of the Communist Party in building a clear and unified critique of society, even though the party played little role in organising the uprising itself.

What we urgently need is mass organisation. The Red Shirts were a mass movement, but the UDD leadership has placed the Red Shirt Movement in cold storage. It is up to all of us to step up to the challenge and rebuild a democracy movement which can eventually respond to the call by today’s students.

The absence of a Left political party has also created difficulties. The idiot generals may claim that “they know who is backing the students”, but this is just a routine lie. Unfortunately there is no organisation backing the students. If we look around Thai society we see that the so-called NGO-led “Peoples Movement” is blinded by its post-communist adherence to single-issues. Many even support the junta. The Labour Solidarity Committee can make a futile call to Prayut to raise the minimum wage, while refusing to oppose the junta. Many other single issue campaigners are doing the same.

But the “Dao Din” students have gone beyond single issues. They campaign for land rights and against the dictatorship at the same time. Such an approach is of vital importance. The 14th October 1973 uprising linked discontent with social and economic issues in with the struggle against the military. That was why it was so powerful.

Today the challenge for us all, but also for the active students, is whether we can all help to rebuild a mass movement for democracy which weaves together all the pressing issues of society.

Students call on people to rise up and oppose the junta

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

On the anniversary of the 24th June 1932 revolution which toppled the Absolute Monarchy, groups of pro-democracy students have defied the illegal military junta and staged protests outside a Bangkok police station. They did this in order to defy the police warrant for their arrest because they refused to report to the police over their peaceful protests on the first anniversary of General Prayut’s May 2014 coup d’état.

students at Patum Wan police station (from Prachatai)
students at Patum Wan police station (from Prachatai)

Students and their supporters, along with many reporters, gathered outside Patum Wan police station, near Chulalongkorn University. They read out a declaration calling on people to join them and rise up and oppose the junta. They also accused the police of using violence against them in order to break up their peaceful protest in May.

The military spokes-person for the junta accused the students of being “trouble makers with a hidden agenda”. Fighting for democracy in the open and on the streets can hardly be classified as a hidden agenda, nor can the military’s wilful destruction of democracy! On previous occasions military loud-mouths have accused the students of “being too young to understand politics and democracy”.

spokesman of the illegal junta
spokesman of the illegal junta

Meanwhile the military still calls people in for “attitude-changes”. The latest case is that of people from a north-eastern women’s group who dared to make merit at a temple on former elected Prime Minister Yingluk’s birthday.

celebrating the 1932 revolution (from Prachatai)
celebrating the 1932 revolution (from Prachatai)

 

Also on 24th June this year, at the metal plaque commemorating the 1932 revolution, a group of activists laid flowers as a symbol of democracy.

Fat-head general Prawit
Fat-head general Prawit

 

Meanwhile Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Fat-head General Prawit tried to claim that the military junta was “protecting the tradition of the Peoples’ Party Revolution” because it was “building and protecting democracy”. From somewhere around his hindquarters, he was heard to exclaim that the government was “not a dictatorship”. … Perhaps he is too old, too stupid and too military to understand politics and democracy?

Anti-junta rumblings among students

University students in Thailand have continued to show their opposition to the military junta and the destruction of democracy.

Last weekend Thammasart students defied the military, police and university authorities to show mass opposition to the junta at a football match, despite strange men with military-style hair cuts mingling with the crowds, pretending to be students. This week the military have set up check points on the Rungsit campus.

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At Chulalongkorn University, Prachom-Klao Technical University in North Bangkok, Chiang Mai University and Burapa University near Pattaya, anti-dictatorship posters have also appeared.

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The struggle for democracy lives on!!

Why is Thai society addicted to violence?

Numnual Yapparat

A number of incidents in Thailand illustrate how violence is endemic in our society.

Recently, a group of secondary school students were made to “walk” on their knees into school because they were late. The pictures of their wounds show the barbaric results of this violence against school children. The teachers in charge were acting like the soldiers who rule Thailand through the barrel of the gun. The Thai education system is designed to train students to obey instead of thinking for themselves. We see this in the words used by Generalissimo Prayut or the university vice chancellors. Also we know that in Thailand students are not seen by many as having any human rights. The National Human Rights Commission is totally useless.

A conservative proverb says that “if you love your cow you must tie it up and if you love your children you must beat them”.

Arriving late at school may not really be an issue of discipline but could well be caused by a lack of decent public transport and the terrible traffic conditions in Bangkok.

A few days before that, a brave woman student staged a three-fingered anti-coup salute outside a cinema. She joined further pro-democracy events outside the Democracy Monument and the Human Rights Commission. She has been approached by soldiers asking whether “she wanted to be raped”.

Apart from the terrible violence that this threat implies, it reveals an attitude devoid of any respect for women. Such an attitude can also be seen in the behaviour of the Crown Prince. Women in Thailand also have no human rights to demand abortions when they need and want them.

If anyone thought that Thailand was a “peaceful” Buddhist nation then they should consider the photos that have been seen on Facebook of a Buddhist monk slapping a western tourist on a train. The monk was sleeping on a seat designed for 2 people. Other passengers wanted to sit down and they woke up the monk who became very angry and resorted to violence.

Monks are usually elevated to respected positions in society and allowed many privileges. Many monks have opposed a woman’s right to choose abortion. However, most Thais would be appalled by the violent behaviour of this particular monk. Yet the regime of hierarchy and fear in today’s Thailand prevents people speaking out about injustices.

Of course the cold-blooded murder of pro-democracy activists, gunned down by the military, and the ruthless imprisonment of people who speak out against the dictatorship, are standards of violence set right from the top.

We cannot place any hope with the UDD red shirt leaders or with Taksin and Yingluk. This is because they are afraid that when the mass of the population really rise up and take matters into their own hands and fight for human rights, they will sweep away even these elites.

If we learn from the young people who were struggling against the dictatorship alongside the Communists in the 1970s, we would see that a better more equal and just society is an elegant aim for us today. (See my previous post on “the Music of Thai Politics”).