Amidst all the chaos in Bangkok over the Pitak Siam rally —a group of monarchists opposed to the Yingluck government who were supposed to bring hundreds of thousands of supporters into the streets— another, similarly important piece of news about Thailand’s decline emerged. As it turns out, the Pitak Siam rally was mostly a bust. Only about 20,000 supporters actually turned out to rally sites in Bangkok, a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of people who came out in 2006 for anti-Thaksin rallies that ultimately helped precipitate the 2006 coup. Although the Yingluck government overreacted by employing the Internal Security Act in fear of the Pitak Siam rallies, the fact that the Pitak Siam leaders were openly calling for a “freeze” of democracy and for a military coup, and had close ties to senior military leaders, were worrying enough to the government to take severe measures. As it turns out, those were not really needed, and the level of violence between protestors and the security forces was relatively low, at least by recent Thai standards. Now, General Boonlert, the rally’s main organizer, says that he is stepping down as Pitak Siam’s leader. On New Mandala, graduate student Aim Simpeng has a fine analysis of the busted rally.
It’s unlikely Thailand has heard the last of the Pitak Siam leaders, no matter what the general says. The monarchist yellow shirt movement that helped topple the Thaksin government and helped install the Abhisit-led Democrat government remains powerful, if clearly not as able to turn out large street numbers as in the past. Even if not, it remains a huge distraction for the prime minister, a constant threat, and a serious impediment to governing.
Yet the continuing political strife overshadowed the news, reported in the Bangkok Post and elsewhere, that Thailand’s education system was ranked thirty-seventh out of fortydeveloped nations in a global ranking of education systems produced by publishing house Pearson. This is just the latest confirmation that the country’s education system, which was fine for producing widespread basic literacy in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and producing workers for low-end manufacturing, construction, and agriculture, is failing badly to keep pace in the global economy. Thailand has been slipping behind regional competitors like Vietnam in terms of producing workers competent in English and high-tech skills, and with the introduction of Myanmar into the global economy, a country whose universities had basically been shut for years, Thailand will face even tougher competition in lower-end manufacturing than it already does. Yet the Thai education system continues to prioritize rote learning, offers weak instruction in English, and provides low social status to teachers. In addition, in the deep south, where an insurgency is raging, many schools are closed altogether, and the government has not figured out an effective way to protect teachers.
All in all, a sad story. With Indonesia growing strongly, Myanmar emerging, Bangladesh becoming a powerhouse in textiles, and neighboring nations like Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia upgrading their education systems, Thailand risks being left behind. This education deficit, even more than the constant political wrangling today, could be the country’s long-term downfall.