Thursday, October 02, 2008
Sanitsuda Ekachai is Assistant Editor (Outlook), Bangkok Post.
What makes us proud of our country? At the Education Ministry, our patriotism is judged by how much we can memorise national history in textbooks as sacred fact written in stone.
That is why they are extremely worried about the future of patriotism here.
Despite the emphasis on rote learning to enforce conformity and to kill a questioning mind, the education authorities believe our children still cannot parrot well enough.
The future is bleak when many students still do not know about Pantai Norasingh, a popular folk hero who symbolises loyalty to the monarchy. Worse, the educators lament, many still do not know about King Naresuan who freed the Thais from Burmese rule.
The protracted save-the-country theatre at Government House does not convince these bigwigs that there is no shortage of ultra-nationalism here.
The spiralling southern violence cannot make them see that the crux of the problem lies in their version of nationalism, which states that only the dominant Buddhist Thais own the country. Nor can they see that if they insist on pushing this down the throats of the ethnic Malay Muslims, peace will remain out of reach.
Hence their plan to make children across the country parrot more of what they define as national history, what they equate as patriotism, which boils down to a dangerous racist nationalism in a conflict-ridden society where respect for cultural plurality remains indispensible for peace.
When I told my 12-year-old daughter of the Education Ministry’s plans for her history classes next year, she screamed at the idea.
“Why do they want to put us through more boring hours? Why do they think we will love the country by remembering about battles, blood and death? Why is history so full of killing and scary events? What is the point of making us remember so many difficult names and dates? I just don’t see any use of it.”
Playing devil’s advocate, I said we need to know about historical roots to know who we are so we can move forward confidently. The boredom may stem from how history classes are conducted, I suggested.
She defended her teacher vehemently. “We’re allowed to do open-book quiz in class, which is fun. But the materials are boring.”
“So what do you want to learn?” I pressed.
Civilisations, she said. Old civilisations in all parts of the world. How the pyramids were built, for example. When I pointed out that pyramids are not Thai, she just shrugged her shoulders.
When I asked if she wanted to learn how different geographical landscapes shaped different cultures and civilisations, how an ancient civilisation based on the salt industry in the Isan Plateau rose and fell, how it was replaced by principalities in the river basins which prospered from rain-fed rice cultivation, how different ethnicities in the region lived alongside one another since prehistoric times in this region and, closer to home, how true it was that Bangkok’s roots were essentially Chinese – she cut me short.
“Anything, mummy. Anything is better than what it is now.”
However boring, ultra-nationalism has still succeeded in seeping in to poison kids’ minds. My daughter, for one, truly believes that Thailand once owned parts of our neighbouring countries, making us the greatest in this region.
“Because the textbooks say so.”
Like most Thais, she feels Burma is fierce and heartless, Cambodia cannot be trusted and Laos is inferior to Thailand – because the history textbooks teach her so. And since national history only has room for ethnic Buddhists, she considers it an alien notion that other ethnic minorities must have equal rights to the dominant ethnic Thais in a democratic society.
She is only 12, I told myself. If others can rise above such ugly nationalism to understand how it makes us cruel and heartless, my girl can do it too, one day.
The Education Ministry may want to tighten the chains of racist nationalism, but any mother who cares for her children’s humanity and peace in an increasingly tense multi-cultural world, will never give up the fight for it.
Neither will I.