Teaching Thailand’s forgotten revolution

How much room is there to learn about revolution in Thailand’s education system, a system facing mounting criticism for preaching obedience over creativity? Today, on the 85th anniversary of the 1932 Democratic Revolution, few students are likely to remember the arguable birth of democracy in Thailand.

<--break- />Much of Thailand did not know there existed a plaque in Bangkok memorialising the 1932 Democratic Revolution, until it disappeared in mid-April this year. Some were familiar with the name People’s Party, having perhaps encountered it in a textbook containing some cursory information on the regime change that took place on 24 June 1932. But more than a few — especially among younger generations — were surely unsure what happened that day, and of the day’s historical significance.

Members of the People's Party 

‘Thailand was not ready for democratic revolution’, says textbooks

Students generally begin learning about the Democratic Revolution at the high school level, but its place in the national curriculum is vaguely described. The historical event comes under the social studies learning requirement, “Understanding the origins of the Thai nation, culture and wisdom. Having love for, pride in and maintaining Thainess”. This goal is in turn constituted by four activities:

  1. Analysing Thailand’s development during the Rattanakosin period [King Rama I– King Rama VII], from various perspectives
  2. Analysing the factors that affected the stability and prosperous development of Thailand during the Rattanakosin period
  3. Analysing Thai wisdom and culture during the Rattanakosin period, and their influence on the development of the Thai nation
  4. Analysing Thailand’s role during the period of democracy

Democracy’s vague space in Thailand’s curriculum could be one factor that has led to the ignorance of many of Thailand’s youth towards the 1932 Revolution. One anonymous history teacher from Bangkok expressed to Prachatai concerns that the vagueness of Thailand’s history curriculum leaves lessons on the 1932 Revolution to the discretion of teachers. If teachers are not impartial, students are unlikely to be hear the full story.

Kittiya Wiriyawirawat, a teacher from the Kanchanaburi Commemoration of Princess Mother’s School, states that the narrative taught is that the Thai people were not ready for the regime change that took place — and that this premature democratic experiment has hindered the country’s development until now. Lessons on the 1932 Revolution aim to instill some general knowledge of Thai politics and governance, but are not concerned with detail. There are next to no mentions of the memorial plaque in textbooks.

Students don’t care about modern history, say teachers

The Bangkok history teacher has observed further that students are uninterested in learning contemporary history. Teachers in general teach with vigour history from the Sukhothai to Ayutthaya period, as well as the time of Rama I to Rama VI. While a teacher may spend 10 lessons on Rama V, contemporary history from Rama VII is crammed into the last two lessons. Some textbooks do not mention the 1932 Revolution at all.

“Personally, I think that modern history should be taught more and deeper than older history, because it’s most relevant to us today. Contemporary history is the origins of the things that are happening now,” the teacher stated.

“There are other important events too, like 14 October [1973] and 6 October [1976], which are all covered in only two lessons.”

The teacher pointed out further that that history classes in Thailand tend to revolve around leaders, such as royalty, leaving little room for the history of ordinary people. The silencing of people’s history is exacerbated by the fact that it often conflicts with royal narratives, which remain popular in Thailand.

“Nowadays we learn and know about the People’s Party. But do we know who was in the People’s Party? … We still don’t know how many people were in the People’s Party, their important projects. It’s makes it seem like the People’s Party has left no legacy.”  

The teacher worries further that history education Thailand emphasises stories and ‘what happened’, to the neglect of exploring how these stories are connected to the present. He believes that students should learn even those histories that are not enjoyable or cause discomfort, such as how German schools still teach about the Nazi period. Only by learning from our mistakes can we make the future better than the past.  

“Students must learn why the People’s Party came into being. There are many questions to be asked, but we aren’t taught to ask them, only to let things be. So it has become that we learn histories that have been written already, when in reality history is a subject for analysis. We need to analyse and scutinise the evidence, so that we can find the truth again.”

 But curious students left unsatisfied

What do students think themselves?

One student from a famous Norther school expressed satisfaction with what she’s learnt about the 1973 revolution in the classroom — enough to know that the cause of the event was a declining economy, pressures to democratise from foreign countries, that that there were seven leaders in the People’s Party.

But Thi Phrombut, another high school student, was forced to seek out information about 1973 independently after being left dissatisfied with the brief coverage at school. Finding her text books to be one sided, she sought out online books and relied on social media for alternative perspectives.

What resulted were numerous questions and confusions that could not be resolved in textbooks or the classroom. Thi maintains that history and social studies should be subjects that allow for the asking of questions, rather than mere memorising.

Arin Chinnasathien, a fellow high school student, believes that the treatment of 1973 revolution reflects a deeper malaise in Thailand’s history education system.

“It’s the same problem as learning history generally. In short, we learn as if we are listening to fables. But really, the system should cultivate historians better than this, with habits like asking questions. It should practise skills in analysis, interpretation, evaluation and synthesis, to nurture learnings with good habits — rather than memorising books every day.”