Two months after the coup d’état in May, the Thai junta vowed to reform the Thai education system, which is one of the worst in the region. But instead of paying attention to structural problems, the junta’s policy for the Ministry of Education aims to focus on indefinable ‘merit’ and more nationalistic history classes.
Junta leader Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha sensed an urgent need to reform Thai education after he read a Grade 1 textbook and found that he could not answer its questions.
“I read a textbook for Grade 1 students the other day. To me, it's too difficult. I can't answer some of the questions. It's a textbook on society. The children have to write very long answers, but they aren't yet good at writing. If they have to write such long answers, it causes them too much trouble," ranted Prayuth on the junta leader’s weekly TV programme on 15 August.
He added that he is concerned that Thai students do not have sufficient knowledge of Thai history. “Thai children nowadays, when they are asked how many provinces Thailand has, they can’t answer. Asked if Thailand has any World Heritage sites, they don’t know. How can they be Thai?”
The junta leader, saying his mother was a teacher, went on to say that he was upset after he found out that Thai history textbooks give too little space to glorious stories of Siam’s former kings. When he was a kid, he said, he could memorize them all.
Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha as head of the junta's National Council for Peace and Order and Prime Minister speaks on the NCPO's weekly TV program "Return Happiness for the People"
To boost nationalism among the Thai people, the junta has organized several free screenings of a patriotic movie.
Moreover, in July the junta leader told the Thai people that it would reinforce 12 national core values as part of its reform strategy.
The 12 Thai Values of the junta are:
1. Love for the nation, religions and monarchy
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. Correct understanding of democracy with the monarch as head of the state
8. Discipline and respect for the law and elders
9. Awareness in thinking and doing things, and following the guidance of His Majesty the King
10. Living by the sufficiency economy philosophy guided by His Majesty the King
11. Physical and mental strength against greed
12. Concern about the public and national good more than self-interest.
It should be noted that the conservative general raised his twin daughters with freedom and western music, and they later became punk rock musicians.
Determined to keep his promise, Prayuth passed on his reform agenda to the Ministry of Education (MOE). On 21 July, the Ministry actively responded to the junta’s call by coming up with the so-called “Merit Passport,” a notebook where each student keeps a daily record of their behaviour, attitudes, and activities, from grade one to grade nine.
The proposal came from the Ministry’s attempt to integrate the 12 Thai values into the primary and secondary education system in order to educate students to become good Thai citizens.
According to MOE Permanent Secretary and Acting Minister Sudhasri Wongsesmarn, the plan is aimed at encouraging Thai students to act in accordance with good Thai values. She added that she hoped that students’ merit passports would become an important criterion in the competitive university admission process nationwide.
The MOE also plans to implement the merit passports in upper secondary education and other educational streams, such as vocational schools and home schools as well.
MOE Permanent Secretary and Acting Minister Sudhasri Wongsesmarn shows the meirt passport
Although the ‘student passport’ is still under discussion, it sparked a public debate on whether the plan could in reality be implemented fairly for all students.
“I think the idea of the student passports is good, because it will allow the university to consider not only the academic performance of students, but also their character. However, I think that some students would lie or please the teachers to get good records.” said Sithipong, a high school student from Bangkok, who asked not to identify his affiliation due to privacy concerns.
Nonetheless, the idea of student passports is not new. Boy Scout and Girl Guide activities in schools already record students’ activities and give extracurricular credits. Moreover, there is an eight-year-old experiment called the ‘Nakhon Pathom Model’ in which high school students in Nakhon Pathom Province in central Thailand were instructed to note their good behaviour and activities in notebooks.
These notebooks are later used as one of the criteria for university admission. In the past eight years, the MOE claims to have successfully implemented the Nakhon Pathom model to assist 4,000 students to enter Thailand’s leading universities.
The Council of University Presidents of Thailand agreed to the proposal. However, many said that the policy needs to be carefully implemented.
Use of the merit passports as an important qualification for university entrance can be problematic. Not only is there the implication that the twelve Thai values in the merit passports may favour students with certain characteristics, it is also difficult to keep the system transparent.
“We have implemented a similar policy as an admission criterion before, but it was difficult to keep it transparent, so we had to stop.” said Assoc. Prof. Kittichai Triratanasirichai, the President of Khon Kaen University in the Northeast of Thailand.
Although the junta and many educators view the proposal positively, many are concerned that if the merit passport is implemented, it will instead worsen Thailand’s education, whose quality already lags behind its neighbours. Many people think that the junta’s narrowly defined Thai values cannot fairly evaluate students.
Many also believe that it will limit freedom of expression in schools. By using the twelve Thai values as criteria, students whose ideas do not fit with its implications might be constrained from stating their opinions, fearing that they might not get good evaluations from their schools.
Takato Mitsunaga, a Japanese undergraduate student at Thammasat University, told Prachatai that it might be a good idea if the extracurricular activities of students became an important criterion for university admission or even for getting jobs but he is doubtful if the authorities can define what good students are. “The concept of ‘good students’ cannot be defined concretely, especially if it is based on the junta’s twelve Thai values. Moreover, this policy can also limit freedom of expression, which could be encouraged in schools as well.” said Mitsunaga.
On social media, a campaign against the merit passport has been created. Anti-Merit Passport Facebook fanpage
has gained more than 1,000 likes over a month. It said on the page’s description that the merit passport does not make Thai kids do more good things, but becoming more keen in telling a lie.
The cover photo of the Anti-Merit Passport page. It says: How could you come up with this idea man? Using merit passport for the admission to universities is indeed doing good for its results. We strongly oppose the merit passport: the f***** project by the Education Ministry. The project supports children to tell a lie.
While the merit passport is not new to Thai students, the call to reform Thai history teaching is not new either.
History classes have regularly been criticized as among the worst in Thai schools. While progressives usually say that history teaching in Thailand is one sided and more like propaganda, conservatives say that the root of the country’s conflict is because history classes are not patriotic enough and should be amended to be even more patriotic so as to unite all Thais.
The current historical narrative in Thai school textbooks focuses on the current monarch and heroic kings who protected the sovereignty of the Thai homeland against neighbouring states in the past and portrays neighbouring countries, such as Myanmar and Lao, as inferior and enemies of the nation.
The content is too simple and narrow. This narrative usually starts with the Sukhothai Kingdom as the first truly Siamese capital
In late August, Kamol Rodklai, Secretary-General of the Office of the Basic Education Commission (OBEC) officially announced the Ministry’s plan to modify the content of history and civic duty classes according to Prayuth’s recommendations. The Ministry will also publish 32,000 new national history textbooks and provide lists of 170 history books that been approved by the Ministry to reinforce the correct version of history among students.
Moreover, the Office will enforce the use of only approved history textbooks in public schools.
“I have ordered OBEC to improve the history curriculum by adding important content of the correct version of Thai history. From now on, public schools must only use history and Thai language books that have been approved by the Ministry and private schools are recommended to do so,” said Kamol.
Kamol said that if students have a “correct” understanding of Thai roots and history, people will be in unity.
In addition, the junta also suggests that the Ministry of Culture use other media sources such as movies and visual media to reinforce the royal nationalistic version of Thai history.
The Ministry will support historical movies and documentaries based on the lives of heroic kings of Siam. Movies like Suriyothai and King Naresuan will be supported by the Ministry.
Whether OBEC will be able to mend the political divide via history classes in schools or not, it is doubtful that what Thai public schools really need is more royal nationalistic history and civic duty classes.
According to Niels Mulder, author of Thai Images: the Culture of the Public World, the public education curriculum in Thailand is already overloaded with civic duty and royal nationalistic history, which are reinforced in the morning school assemblies and other ceremonies such as Mother’s and Father’s days.
Mulder wrote that these direct and indirect forms of education make students ignorant of the diverse history of the region and the unrealistic civil liberty classes only contribute to the lack of analytical skills for children to understand their own society. Moreover, it reinforces the hierarchical system by presenting an unrealistic role for children who have to listen to their parents and elders.