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School and Discipline

The fourth paragraph of Article 50 of the Draft Constitution states that the general purpose of Thai education is to create good and disciplined students who are proud of their nation, which has been criticised by the group Education for the Liberation of Siam over the definitions of ‘good’ and ‘disciplined’. In order to better understand the argument, the following column channels the spirit of Luang Wichitwathakan, Thailand’s greatest fascist-era propagandist, on the topic of school and discipline.[i]

It would be wrong to say that Thainess[ii] is an illusion, or an ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those… one supervises, trains and corrects, over… children at home and at school, the colonized, over those who are… supervised for the rest of their lives. This is the historical reality of this Thainess, which, unlike the soul represented by Christian theology, is not born in sin and subject to punishment, but is born rather out of methods of punishment, supervision and constraint.

Thai[iii] discipline produces subjected and practised bodies, ‘docile’ bodies. Discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience). In short, it dissociates power from the body; on the one hand, it turns it into an ‘aptitude’, a ‘capacity’, which it seeks to increase; on the other hand, it reverses the course of the energy, the power that might result from it, and turns it into a relation of strict subjection.

Around each of our[iv] moral coups[v], schoolchildren will gather with their masters and adults will learn what lessons to teach their offspring. The great terrifying ritual of the coup[vi] gives way, day after day, street after street, to… serious theatre, with its multifarious and persuasive scenes. And popular memory will reproduce in rumour the austere discourse of the law.

The idea of an educational ‘programme’ of Thainess[vii] that would follow the child to the end of his schooling and which would involve from year to year, month to month, exercises of increasing complexity, first appeared… in a religious group… we[viii] transposed certain of the spiritual techniques to education - and to the education not only of clerks, but also of magistrates and merchants: the theme of a perfection towards which the exemplary master guides the pupil became with us[ix] that of an authoritarian perfection of the pupils by the teacher; the ever-increasing rigorous exercises that the ascetic life proposed became tasks of increasing complexity that marked the gradual acquisition of knowledge and good behaviour; the striving Discipline of the whole community towards salvation became the collective, permanent competition of individuals being classified in relation to one another.

This carefully measured combination of forces to the goal of Thainess[x] requires a precise system of command. All the activity of the disciplined individual must be punctuated and sustained by injunctions whose efficacity rests on brevity and clarity; the order does not need to be explained or formulated; it must trigger off the required behaviour and that is enough. From the master of discipline to him who is subjected to it the relation is one of signalization: it is a question not of understanding the injunction but of perceiving the signal and reacting to it immediately, according to a more or less artificial, prearranged code. Place the bodies in a little world of signals to each of which is attached a single, obligatory response: it is a technique of training, of dressage, that 'despotically excludes in everything the least representation, and the smallest murmur’; the disciplined soldier ‘begins to obey whatever he is ordered to do; his obedience is prompt and blind; an appearance of indocility, the least delay would be a crime’… The training of Thai[xi] schoolchildren is[xii] to be carried out in the same way: few words, no explanation, a total silence interrupted only by signals - bells, clapping of hands, gestures, a mere glance from the teacher.

The Thai school must be[xiii] subject to a whole micro-penality of time (latenesses, absences, interruptions of tasks), of activity (inattention, negligence, lack of zeal), of behaviour (impoliteness, disobedience), of speech (idle chatter, insolence), of the body (‘incorrect’ attitudes, irregular gestures, lack of cleanliness), of sexuality (impurity, indecency). At the same time, by way of punishment, a whole series of subtle procedures must be[xiv] used, from light physical punishment to minor deprivations and petty humiliations. It is[xv] a question both of making the slightest departures from correct' behaviour subject to punishment, and of giving a punitive function to the apparently indifferent elements of the disciplinary apparatus: so that, if necessary, everything might serve to punish the slightest thing; each subject find himself caught in a punishable, punishing universality. ‘By the word punishment, one must understand.

Everything that is capable of making children feel the offence they have committed, everything that is capable of humiliating them, of confusing them: . . . a certain coldness, a certain indifference, a question, a humiliation, a removal from office’.

To conclude, modern Thai educational[xvi] disciplinary power, with its regulation of students’ social lives[xvii]… is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is the fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection… In this space of domination, disciplinary power manifests its potency, essentially, by arranging objects.


[i] All paragraphs are passages from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, mainly commenting on 18th and 19th century French practices.

[ii] ‘Thainess’ here is substituted for Foucault’s term ‘soul’.

[iii] Added ‘Thai’.

[iv] Originally ‘these’.

[v] Originally ‘representations’.

[vi] Originally ‘public execution’.

[vii] ‘of Thainess’ added.

[viii] Originally ‘they’.

[ix] Originally, ‘them’.

[x] ‘to the goal of ‘Thainess’ added.

[xi] Added ‘Thai’.

[xii] Changed from ‘was’.

[xiii] Originally ‘The workshop, the school, the army were’.

[xiv] Originally ‘was’.

[xv] Originally ‘was’.

[xvi] Added ‘To conclude, modern Thai schools’’.

[xvii] Added ‘with its regulation of students’ social lives’. Thai schools are increasingly expected not only to monitor practices within the school via student prefects but also student behaviour and social life via Facebook etc.



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