In Thailand’s Schools, Vestiges of Military Rule

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SAMUT PRAKAN, Thailand — Put aside for a moment the image of Thailand that tourists often see, a laid-back, anything-goes country of libidinous night life.

Thai students have an altogether different impression. In Thai schools, a drill sergeant’s dream of regimentation rooted in the military dictatorships of the past, discipline and enforced deference prevail.

At a public school in this industrial Bangkok suburb, teachers wield bamboo canes and reprimand students for long hair, ordering it sheared on the spot. Students are inspected for dirty fingernails, colored socks or any other violation of the school dress code.

“At a fundamental level, students should have the same appearance,” said Arun Wanpen, the vice principal, who presided over the morning ceremony one recent school day. A sea of uniformed students with close-cropped black hair (no dyed hair is allowed) sang the national anthem, recited a Buddhist incantation and repeated a pledge to sacrifice their lives for the nation, love the king and “not cause any trouble.”

Yet as the legacy of military rule fades, some students are rising up and challenging, with some success, a system that stresses unquestioned obedience. They have a receptive ally in a government that is seeking to reduce the military’s role in civic life and has proposed sweeping changes to the education system.

Late last year, a freethinking Thai high school student, Nethiwit Chotpatpaisan, who goes by the nickname Frank, started a Facebook campaign calling for the abolition of the “mechanistic” education system. Together with like-minded friends, he started a group called the Thailand Educational Revolution Alliance. He rose to national prominence in January after speaking out on a prime-time television program.

“School is like a factory that manufactures identical people,” he said one recent morning at his school, Nawaminthrachinuthit Triam Udomsuksa Pattanakarn, the same school where Mr. Arun is vice principal.

Frank described the teachers there as “dictators” who order students to “bow, bow, bow” and never to contradict them.

The group’s message has resonated, partly because he has found a measure of common cause with the country’s United States-trained education minister, Phongthep Thepkanjana. He has vowed to allow Thai schoolchildren to let their hair down — literally — and has proposed a raft of education changes to reduce what he says is an emphasis on rote memorization and to promote critical thinking.

“We do not want all students in one prototype, especially a prototype that makes them follow orders,” he said in an interview. “We don’t want them to photocopy knowledge into their brains. We want them to be individuals, within reason.”

He has proposed less homework and fewer hours in the classroom, and a curriculum that would focus on the essentials of language, math and science. In the age of Wikipedia, he said, there is no sense in memorizing the names and lengths of obscure rivers in Africa, as he had been required to do as a student.

A former judge who was trained as a lawyer at George Washington University, Mr. Phongthep said that encouraging students to form opinions and debate would be good for democracy in a country that has had numerous stumbles on its eight-decade journey out of absolute monarchy.

“If students cannot voice their opinions in class, how can they exercise their freedom of expression in society?” he said.

Earlier this year he announced he would relax the rule on hair length, which carries great symbolism here since it was enacted by the military government in 1972. The rule requires that girls have their hair cut just below the ear, and that boys buzz the sides of their heads like cadets. The new rules are pending approval by the Thai cabinet.

“We want students to be reasonable people,” he said. “How can we force them to do something without any proper reason?”

The proposed changes go to the heart of the way schools work here. Studying longer and harder has long been considered one of the main ingredients for East Asia’s economic miracle, and is the model that Thailand, seeking to climb the ladder to the club of Asia’s wealthiest nations, has sought to imitate.

But Mr. Phongthep said Thai students were being smothered by it, and the schools’ report card shows room for improvement. Scores in national exams have been falling, and Thai students over all are ranked 52nd for mathematics in the Program for International Student Assessment, a global benchmark, placing them below average for the mostly highly developed countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (Students in Shanghai and Singapore were ranked first and second in the latest published assessment, in 2009.)

Advocates for change say the current curriculum, packed with subjects to memorize, does not allow time for Thai students to think for themselves.

“I have been saying for a long time that the more you study, the more stupid you become,” said Sompong Jitradub, an authority on the education system who is serving on the curriculum revision committee. “All they do is memorize. They never think critically. They never exchange opinions.”

He said the main resistance to change had come from the civil servants for whom revising the curriculum would be a gargantuan task. After that, a new curriculum would face a series of public hearings before it could be approved.

In the case of the dress code, there are already signs that administrators might balk. Mr. Arun, the vice principal and strict disciplinarian, is considering flouting the new rules himself if they are too lenient. He and others say that maintaining discipline is essential to combat the social ills convulsing young people in Thailand — drugs, teenage pregnancy and gang fights.

“The government has policies, but we are the practitioners,” he said in an interview in his office. “If the government launches new policies, we will look at them and decide which ones are appropriate for us.”

He summed up discipline this way: “The military needs guns; teachers need sticks. Sometimes you need to hit them a little bit, but only on the bottom.”

The greatest cheerleaders for change seem to be the students themselves.

“Students are not enriching themselves,” said Jirapat Horesaengchai, 16, a member of the Thailand Educational Revolution Alliance. “‘They are waiting for information to be fed to them.”

The group consists of precocious students who love to debate. One of them trolls scientific sites on the Internet for comments questioning the theory of evolution, and ridicules the posters as being unscientific. Another member hacked into the Ministry of Education Web site, confessed, and was hired by the ministry to beef up cybersecurity.

Nutcha Piboonwatthana, 16, one of the few girls in the group, said she had a double mission, pushing for changes to the system and getting Thai girls, who are trained from an early age to be deferential, to be more adventurous.

“Girls think inside the box,” she said quietly, her hair neatly tied with a blue bow. “They are very good at studying. I just want the girls to realize there is a world outside of school.”



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