United Nations Human Rights Office for South East Asia   BANGKOK  (3  September  2014)  --- The United Nations Human Rights Office for South   East   Asia... Read more...
Kongpob Areerat
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.     
The junta has forced human rights groups, including Amnesty International, to call off an event to discuss human rights violations since the coup, and deployed troops at the venue.  
The event, organized by Amnesty International Thailand, the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) and the Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF), was to be held at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, Maneeya Building, Bangkok, at 2.30 pm on Tuesday. 
Policemen in front of the Maneeya building on Tuesday morning
From Tuesday morning onward, military officers, about 10 police officers in uniform and several plainclothes policemen were deployed around the venue and in front of the club. 
On Tuesday at 2 pm the event organizers told almost a hundred attendees that they had cancelled the event because of the junta’s order.  
The event organizers reportedly had been receiving phone calls from the military all day since Monday.
The event was to have included a presentation by TLHR, which has compiled cases of human rights violations during the 100 days since the coup, and a panel discussion, with panellists and the moderator from the International Commission of Jurists, Human Rights Watch, CrCF, TLHR, and iLaw. 
The letter, sent by the military to the head of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, on 2 September 2014
A letter dated 2 September, sent by the military to the head of the TLHR, states: In order to follow the policy of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the 1st Cavalry Squadron, King’s Guard, as the agency assigned to enforce law and order in Pathumwan District, kindly asks for your cooperation in cancelling the activity. If there is any complaint from people who face problems accessing justice and exercising their freedom of expression, or any recommendation related to human rights, please contact the Damrongtham Centre, under the Inspection and Grievances Bureau, Ministry of Interior (Hotline 1567).
Thailand is now ruled a military government, which has strictly enforced martial law to suppress freedom of expression and arbitrarily detain critics, academics and activists. 
The following is the statement from TLHR on the Tuesday incident:
A Statement from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights forwarded by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) in collaboration with Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF) and Amnesty International Thailand was planning to organize a presentation of report on the situation of human rights “Access to Justice in Thailand: Currently Unavailable Human Rights Situation 100 Days after the Coup” today. But just yesterday, 1 September 2014, TLHR and other organizing organizations have been contacted and asked my Thailand’s military officials to cancel the event as they claimed the incumbent situation is still abnormal. We were told as well that if we persist to organize the event, we will face charges for violating the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) Announcement no. 7/2557 which prohibits any political assembly of five people upwards. TLHR wants to make our stand clear regarding the behaviour of the Thai authorities as follows:
1. The presentation of report on the situation of human rights “Access to Justice in Thailand: Currently Unavailable Human Rights Situation 100 Days after the Coup” is an attempt to shed light on obstacles to access to justice in the aftermath of the coup in Thailand. It is not a political gathering. TLHR has been established to receive complaints and provide legal aid to detainees, and we are simply performing our duties as lawyers and human rights activists. Given that Martial Law has still been imposed and it provides draconian power to the officials, an effort to monitor the situation and disseminate information to society is therefore indispensable.
2. The right to freedom of expression is a fundamental human right enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Thailand is a state party and is obliged to observe. After all, NCPO has been telling the press that it respects human rights principles. Also, Section 4 of the 2014 Interim Constitution written by NCPO itself provides for protection of human dignity, rights, liberty and equality of all Thailand people in accordance with the Constitutional practice in the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of the State and any existing international obligations should therefore be respected as per the Constitution. Any attempt to prevent a public event to discuss about human rights from happening is a gross violation of such rights and liberties.
3. Apart from being a direct intimidation to lawyers and rights activists, the attempt by the military authorities to “ask for cooperation” to cancel or postpone the event and the reiteration that if the organizers decide to press ahead with the event, they shall face prosecution for violating the NCPO Announcement which bans any political gathering, will also perpetuate the climate of fear in society and will lead to further infringement of human rights and the chance the affected families shall be accorded with justice and remedies. Such a consequence seems contradictory to the image the NCPO has tried to project by claiming that they have been performing their duties with due respect to human rights. It also highlights the grave human rights situation as of now.
The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) condemns the intimidation by security officials and as an advocate of legal and human rights, we shall persist to uphold our duties as a lawyer to protect the people’s rights and liberties. We shall make an effort to present the report on human rights situation to mark 100 days after the coup via other channels in order to ensure that voices of the people and their families whose human rights have been abused shall continue to be heard and that they shall be bestowed on with truth and justice as well as to uphold people’s rights and liberties in general. TLHR would also insist on proposing the following recommendations as mentioned on our current report on the situation of human rights that:
  1. Martial Law which is being imposed countrywide should be revoked.
  2. No persons shall be subjected to apprehension, arrest and detention invoking Martial Law.
  3. Any restriction to curb the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly should be lifted.
  4. No civilians should be tried in the military court.
With respect to the people’s rights and liberties
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR)
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In light of the violent political situation in Thailand’s troubled South, paramilitary troops have been engaged to patrol the heavily militarized three border provinces, conducting search and arrest missions in villages, manning checkpoints, and carrying out a host of other ad-hoc activities. 
While the male paramilitary troops (Thahan Phran Chai) have earned a notorious reputation for themselves, little is known about female paramilitary troops in the area who are given the duty of mediation with local villagers, especially Muslim women. 
Female Paramilitaries 43rd Ranger Battalion Facebook fanpage
Thailand’s troubled South, consisting of the three southern border provinces -- Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, is home to a predominantly Muslim population. Over the past ten years, the region has been plagued by incessant violence fuelled by deep distrust between the Muslim locals and the military. Since the annexation of Patani to Siam in 1902, the region has been plagued with secessionist movements.
Between the 1940s and 1980s, insurgents staged a number of uprisings in retaliation against a forced assimilation policy pursued by the governments of the time. By the late 1990s, the separatist movement had died down. However the peace did not last long. When Thaksin Shinawatra became Prime Minister in 2001, violence again erupted. According to Joseph Liow, an expert on Southeast Asian Muslim politics, the resurgence of conflict is a consequence of Thaksin’s “policy missteps, one after another.”
Negotiation with insurgent groups has proved difficult. Due to the fluid nature of these groups, they often maintain a silence about attacks and have rarely made specific demands. This makes it difficult for the Thai state to engage in dialogue with groups involved in the insurgency. 
Female Paramilitaries 43rd Ranger Battalion Facebook fanpage
The male paramilitary troops are constantly armed and are notorious among the locals for being responsible for ‘dirty tasks’ that the army refuses to be associated with. These tasks range from enforced disappearances to extrajudicial killings. In comparison, the female paramilitaries are not armed and assume support operations. They are deployed in front line operations only if it involves women and children. Otherwise their jobs are mainly restricted to paperwork and occasionally serving rations to commanders and visitors to the camp. 
“As women, we are able to explain patiently and communicate clearly with the villagers. This is important as we need to build good relations with the local people,” said Lieutenant Noi*, a female paramilitary, deployed at Inkayut Military Camp in Pattani Province. The female presence is important to quell any form of distrust the villagers may have towards the soldiers, she added. 
In total, there are approximately 807 female paramilitary troops in Thailand and Muslim women make up around 2/5 of them.
The duties of a female paramilitary vary from day to day. On most days, they get up at 5.30 am for morning exercise, followed by cleaning the area and then deployment. The nature of their job differs according to the unit where the women are posted. In general, the jobs of female paramilitaries range from manning checkpoints, search and arrest missions and peacekeeping during demonstrations to conducting lessons in villages, paperwork and even maintaining social media. 
Female Paramilitaries 43rd Ranger Battalion Facebook fanpage
“The role of a female paramilitary soldier is not static and always changing. They help out in strategic operations, social media management and civilian work. One thing for sure, they are never involved in combat but are a good help in negotiations before the arrest of suspects in local areas” Colonel Mektrai from 43rd Ranger Battalion.
To be a female paramilitary, one has to be single, between the ages of 18-30 and have completed at least Grade 10. They are required to be physically fit to undergo a 45-day training programme to learn basic soldiering skills. The training programme is relatively short, compared to the military in other parts of the world. Additionally, with a lack formal assessment upon the completion of training, it is difficult to ascertain the standards and proficiency of the female paramilitary troops. 
According to the commanders of the 43rd Ranger Battalion, Muslim female paramilitary troops are a valuable asset to the force as they are able to communicate with villagers in the local language and are able to connect well with the locals based on their shared ethnicity. 
By deploying these women in strategic operations, the military is attempting to co-opt local support and create a sense of familiarity amongst the local people towards these female Muslim paramilitaries. 
Male paramilitaries undergoing military training in Inkayut Camp
Assessing the success of female paramilitary troops
Suri*, a 20-year-old female paramilitary from Narathiwat Province says that her fluency in the local language has helped her connect with the villagers while on duty. “They ask me for my name and ask if I am a Muslim. I tell them that I am and they are friendly to me,” she added. 
However, the sentiments on the ground seem to vary to a large degree. June*, a 21-year-old undergraduate from Prince of Songkhla University (PSU), told Prachatai that she dislikes uniformed personnel, whether they are male or female. “I had a short interaction with [a female paramilitary] during an anti-drug workshop and I was really afraid of them. The mention of ‘soldiers’ is just intimidating!” she said. 
Although Suri said that her mediation role has been successful, the idea of being a paramilitary is still not welcomed in her hometown. 
Fresh out of school, Suri followed her sister’s footsteps and applied to be part of the paramilitary force. “My parents are happy and proud that I am working as a female paramilitary” she chirped. Suri gets about 10,000 baht a month as a female paramilitary. This is a lot more than the measly 300 baht per day salary that 10th grade school leavers are getting elsewhere in the country.
Although her family is glad that she has found a job that she likes, Suri lets on that the rest of her village does not know what she does for a living. “I do not tell my neighbours about my job as a female paramilitary. It is too dangerous. We don’t know who is living in the village and if word gets around about my job, I could get into trouble,” she said.  
To account for her absence from her hometown, Suri and her family tell their neighbours that she is pursuing further education in another province. She said, “Some villagers have a bad impression of soldiers and people from the military. For my safety, I tell my neighbours that I am studying in another province.” 
It is no surprise that Suri has to hide her identity as a female paramilitary from her wider social circle. Paramilitary troops in general have earned a notorious reputation in the country’s Deep South. Villagers do not have a good impression of paramilitary troops as they are known to be rude and unreasonable. 
Assistant Professor Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of Deep South Watch (file photo)
What makes matters more complicated is the fact that Suri and her family are Muslim. According to Assistant Professor Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of Deep South Watch, a number of Muslim female paramilitary troopers have been found dead, supposedly targeted and murdered by Muslim insurgents for their divided allegiance and for being a “spy” for the military. This gives Suri all the more reason to conceal her identity as a female paramilitary. 
Islamic culture yet to be wholly embraced?  
Apart from their role as mediators, the military has appointed female paramilitaries as “representatives of the nation’s female population”. However in a region where Muslim identity is not fully embraced by the Thai state, the wearing of the headscarf continues to be prohibited while wearing paramilitary uniform.  
According to June, who said she dislikes female paramilitary troops, what was even more uncomfortable was the female paramilitary troops’ advocacy of equality among men and women during military-held workshop. 
As June is a relatively conservative Muslim, she did not agree with the way the female paramilitary troops were trying to foster a spirit of equality among men and women during the workshop. June said, “Men and women have different roles (in Islam) and to speak about equality is to ignore fundamental differences”. 
Female Muslim students from Prince of Songkhla University during prayer time
Clearly, there exists a clash of values. When asked about the idea of gender equality between female paramilitaries and their male counterparts, Lieutenant Noi said that discrimination does not exist. “We support their operations and are treated equally,” she added. Female paramilitary troops have embraced the idea of a strong modern woman which sits uncomfortably with the relatively conservative Muslim population of the South.
Similarly, Nurisan Doror from the Deep South Woman Association for Peace, an NGO based in Yala, said that it is impossible for female paramilitary troops to represent ALL women. “It is not possible; they (female paramilitary troops) are not religious. Also, they have to be role models first, they have yet to gain acceptance from locals,” she said. 
According to Nurisan, in order for female paramilitary troops to represent local women, they have to be role models in the way they practice Islam. Given that these female troops do not wear the hijab and possess differing views on the role of women, locals have problems identifying with them. 
This reflects a deep misunderstanding between the military and the people in the South. 
Women’s role in the South revisited 
Although female paramilitary troops and the local population have different ideas on the role of women, we are beginning to notice a resurgent role of women in peace-building efforts in the South.
Angkhana Neelapaijit (file photo)
Angkhana Neelapaijit, chairperson of the Justice for Peace Foundation which has worked with families of the victims of enforced disappearance in the Deep South, supports the idea of young women taking up jobs as female paramilitary troops, although she cannot help but cast doubt on the short training process. She said that women have to step up to assume an active role in peace-building and what is important is that women do not regress into a passive role during conflict. 
The Justice for Peace Foundation specializes on issues related to enforced disappearances in the South and Angkhana has taken on additional projects to work with women whose families have gone missing due to the conflict. Angkhana, a nurse by profession, used to be a normal Muslim housewife. But after her husband, Somchai Neelapaijit, a human rights lawyer, was disappeared in 2004, she stepped up to become an activist, fighting for justice for her husband and other victims of enforced disappearance. 
Gone are the days in which women are confined solely to the kitchen. Since the resurgence of the Southern conflict, women have found themselves going out to work and bringing in the money to support their families. The escalation of violence in recent years has led to many households losing a male family member through death or enforced disappearance. 
When this happens, the women in the family are forced to step up, and assume leadership positions within the household. They become responsible for putting food on the table and bringing up their children single-handedly. 
According to Angkhana, many men avoid going out to work during the conflict because they say that they are afraid of being targeted. “When this happens, the women go out to work, and are the sole breadwinners during times of conflict,” said Angkhana.
“If you go to fishing areas, you will see women working, harvesting and bringing in the fish. They work from 2 am all the way to noon time. It is hard work and they earn only around 200 baht a day,” Angkhana added.
Roles have been reversed. There is indeed hope for women’s empowerment. 
Rosa Emilia Salamanca, Executive Director of Corporacion de Investigacion y Accion Social y Economica (CIASE) in Colombia, sums up the role of women in conflict areas aptly: “Women are so successful in peace because they support societies during the conflict. Every day women are trying to build peace by trying to rebuild their society from what is destroyed. I think women are so successful because they support society in the worse scenarios you can imagine.”
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy and anonymity of interviewees.