Critics say students shouldn’t be used as ‘political machinery’; teachers endorse NCPO pole in coup.
A VAST historical battlefield at the foot of the legendary mountain Khao Chon Kai is usually the site of weapons and ammunition stockpiles for military training.
But now it is dotted with giant infographic vinyl boards in preparation for a new campaign.
As a referendum on the new charter draft draws near, the Army has turned this training field into an open classroom for Thai Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) students from across the country. Its aim is to educate these forces about democracy and the content of the new charter so they can help to encourage people to turn out and cast their votes.
The one-day charter introductory course is part of the “ROTC Volunteer” project the Army introduced a few months ago to recruit the corps to do extra volunteer work, including raising public awareness on issues of importance.
Under the project, up to 80,000 ROTC students have registered with the consent of their parents. Army chief General Theerachai Nakvanich has expressed a wish to see students help to move the country forward.
Since the first charter draft was developed more than a year ago, opposition has been growing, raising fears that the trend could undermine efforts ahead of the referendum. A low voter turnout is among the issues of concern as it could result in the referendum being considered invalid.
Controversial topics and content to be presented include the new election methods for MPs, Senators and the premiership; the prime minister’s role; and stringent measures limiting politicians’ power and governing their conduct.
Territorial Defence Command Chief Lt-General Weerachai Intusophon said the Army realised the referendum would involve important decisions about the country’s future and people should have a good understanding of it before making a decision.
As a result, the military plans to educate students and assign them to encourage voters to exercise their voting rights.
The volunteer students will be visiting communities in every district from March to May before the referendum near the end of July.
“At least, they will be able to ignite people’s interest in the new charter to learn more about it,” Weerachai said.
In talks with the Election Commission (EC), the Territorial Defence Command agreed to develop the unconventional training class, which is meant to expose students to the charter draft and referendum. According to Sampun Sangkumlerd, deputy director general of the Department of Election Campaign and Information Dissemination, students will then have a role in returning democracy to the country.
In the course curriculum, instruction materials are used along with verbal instructions, according to Maj-General Prakran Padavanija, commanding general of the Reserve Affairs Centre. Students are also meant to learn ideas by themselves using the infographic boards, he said.
The newly designed curriculum is based on six installations, which present subjects including environmental preservation, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) roadmap, the referendum roadmap, the controversial content of the charter draft, the concept of democratic citizenship and the volunteers’ mission, said Lt-Colonel Boonlerst Yimyai, a lead trainer.
The content is then transformed into fieldwork. Last week, The Nation observed as the six installations were set up at the Khao Chon Kai military camp on an outdoor cement platform. The installations are called “Learning Stations” and decorated with large, coloured vinyl canvases.
About 600 female reservists trotted to the learning bases to escape the scorching sun. A couple of young military trainers greeted the girls and instructed them to sit down.
The students were divided into six groups to visit each station with each learning session lasting seven minutes. When one session finished, students moved to another base where a military trainer explained the NCPO’s roadmap and mission with a large picture of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in the backdrop.
“If [during the 2014 coup] the NCPO had not taken the country over and governed it, what would have happened” the trainer asked the audience.
“How would Thailand have been seen in other countries’ eyes” she continued.
“Bad,” responded the students.
Standing by the side of the NCPO’s roadmap display, a male trainer explained the new election system outlined by the draft charter. “Look at the infographic board and go through the content,” said the trainer.
A couple of minutes passed. “The new election method enables people to get involved in politics more,” the trainer added.
“Understand” shouted the young trainer. “Yes!” answered the fourth-year female students.
After finishing sessions at every base, some students shared their views with The Nation. Napath Rattanakrittiyapar, a female fourth-year student said: “It gave me a rough idea of the referendum. It’s good. The NCPO is also good. They are clear and manage things [in an] orderly [way].”
Some students, however, thought differently.
“My friends and I did not learn about the charter draft much in the camp. I’m not really interested in politics and the charter. Only a couple of my friends in the battalion joined the ROTC Volunteer project,” said Thun Chakshuraksha, a leader of the second-year student battalion.
Since the course began, some political observers have voiced concerns over the short duration of the training, saying a few minutes were not enough to help the students to understand the complicated content of the charter draft and the referendum. But more critically, they questioned whether it was appropriate to get Army reservists involved in political matters.
“This is not the Army’s responsibility, but I’m not surprised about this move. This is a military government,” said Sombat Boonngamanong, a pro-democracy activist known as Bor Kor Lai Jud.
“This could be a strategy convincing people to accept the charter. This is political machinery asking people to cast votes in the referendum,” said the activist, who specialises in using political symbolism. EC member Somchai Srisuthiyakorn disagreed: “[For ROTC students] to campaign to draw people’s attention to the charter draft and the referendum is fine. It is not using the students to instruct people to vote ‘Yes’. But if that was so, it would be unacceptable.”
The EC also insisted it had designed the content to fit the course duration. “The content regarding democracy and the road to the referendum is simple and concise. We only aim to raise the students’ awareness of democratic citizenship, a general election and the referendum,” Sampun said.
ROTC students are also using social media daily and can pass on what they learn to other people around country, which was the real reason why they were chosen, lead trainer Boonlerst said.
“It is easier to teach the young than the old. The reason why we target ROTC students is that it is easy for us to approach them, compared to high school or university students,” he said.