Thailand’s military rulers are pushing a new behavioural code on schoolchildren, emphasising love for the monarchy and deference to authority, in a move critics say typifies the junta’s authoritarianism and the country’s stultifying education system.
Every morning, pupils at Satriwithaya girls’ school in Bangkok’s historic heart shuffle into the assembly hall to sing the country’s royal anthem. “I prostrate with my head and heart to your majesty,” they chant from their orderly rows.
It is a scene that has long been repeated across a country where the 87-year-old king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, enjoys widespread devotion – a love burnished by a personality cult that hands him semi-divine status.
But now an additional round of compulsory patriotic propaganda has been added to the school’s curriculum in a widening campaign by the junta to tighten the narrative supporting its coup, as well as shape public morality.
Since the new school term started in November, every pupil aged eight to 18 has been asked to master the “Twelve Values” Thailand’s generals want the country’s youth to embody.
They are fresh dictums of love for King Bhumibol – the world’s longest serving monarch – and obedience towards the royalist establishment, which includes the military and swathes of the Bangkok-based elite.
“Adore the nation, religion, and His Majesty the King,” reads the first commandment, a mantra reflecting the long-established three pillars of Thai society.
The seventh urges pupils to “understand properly democracy headed by His Majesty the King” – a phrase with resonance, following the May coup which toppled an elected government – while the final commandment urges work for the “the nation’s benefit rather than one’s own”.
But not all pupils have bought in to the junta’s vision of remoulding Thai society from its classrooms. Some view the tweaked curriculum as a form of brainwashing aimed at inoculating a new generation of Thais against critical thinking.
“It does not suit the 21st century education to force every student to believe the same values,” says one female student from the campaign group Education for Liberation of Siam, who are raising the issue across social media.
“You can’t live in a society that has the same robots that are programmed with the same software,” she added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Yet ideas reinforcing a widely understood – if loosely-defined – notion of “Thainess” are also popular, after nearly a decade of political battles that have bitterly divided Thai society.
Devotion also runs deep to the Thai king, who is seen as a unifying force during a six-decade reign scorched by political upheaval and repeated coups. “He is the centre of everything for Thai people,” says 15-year-old Satriwithaya student Napatsorn Bunyaphate.
The values received big-screen treatment over the weekend, when a dozen ten-minute short films were screened for free across the nation.
The project mastermind is Prayut Chan-O-Cha, the former army chief-turned-premier, who says he was forced to seize power after months of anti-government protests left nearly 30 dead and hundreds more wounded.
Prayut has muzzled dissent, imposed martial law and overseen a surge in charges and convictions for royal defamation – a crime which carries up to 15 years in jail.
Anti-coup protesters have been arrested, including several students last month who raised the three-fingered salute inspired by The Hunger Games movie, which has become an unofficial symbol of resistance to the coup.
Critics accuse the military of using its claims to be the monarchy’s ultimate defender as an excuse to entrench power at a time when it feels threatened by the rise of democracy.
The junta and its allies among Bangkok’s elite are implacably opposed to the family of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, whose affiliated parties have won every election since 2001 on the back of votes from the poor but populous north and northeast.
Analysts have joined rights groups in accusing Prayut of a clumsy thought-control campaign. They also say fiddling with an already weak education system is likely to cramp the kingdom’s political and economic prospects.
Despite spending around 20% of its budget on education – one of the highest regional figures – Thailand fairs poorly compared to many of its neighbours in the various international measurements of academic prowess.
According to a World Economic Forum index, it ranks 87th out of 144 countries surveyed for the quality of its higher education system and, despite calls for reform, learning by rote remains the primary teaching method.
“The default viewpoint is, ‘You should not question the authority’, and that is strongly reflected in the educational system,” explains Dr Atipong Pathanasethpong, from Khon Kaen University in northeastern Thailand.
The junta, he adds, is “only compounding the problems”.