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It’s who you know, not what you know

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Rattana LaoRattana Lao is a recipient of the Ananda Mahidol Scholarship. She has a doctorate in Comparative and International Education (Political Science) from Columbia University’s Teachers College and is currently a lecturer at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Learning Sciences and Education. Her 230-page book, A Critical Study of Thailand’s Higher Education Reforms: The Culture of Borrowing, published by Routledge, will be launched at Thammasat on Aug 18.

The 31-year-old spoke to Spectrum about Thailand’s “selective borrowing”, the value of controversial quality assessments in higher education and the patronage system.

I understand that your book is mainly based on your postgraduate thesis. Can you explain more?

My thesis was interested broadly in external forces such as globalisation, how these forces influence policymaking, and the state response. With that broad theoretical question, I looked at Thai education as a case study. I received the Tokyo Foundation scholarship to investigate this large theme. When I came back to Thailand to interview higher education policymakers, it became clear that quality assessments (QA) had become a contested issue. Everyone was talking about QA, so I became interested in what it was, and whether it has an effect on education quality.

I went to 12 universities in four regions to interview deans, rectors, academics and staff; all the policymakers. “Why not use it? It’s an international standard, everyone has it,” they would say. At first I thought their answers were very simple, but then I began to research the history of Thailand’s educational development.

What issues do you explore in the book, and how does it expand from your original thesis?

At Hong Kong University, I saw a call for a book proposal on critical studies of Asian education. It got me thinking I could maybe adopt my dissertation, so I took academic leave last year to write the book. The dissertation became 30% of the book. I also looked at different policies in higher education. I researched internationalisation and why our ranking is still so low. If we are copying everyone else, why are we still falling behind?

How is Thailand’s education sector influenced by the West?

Since the time of King Chulalongkorn, we’ve wanted to be like the West; to be like Oxford and Cambridge. Lots of our princes went to France and England 100 years ago and came back with the idea that higher learning should emulate the Western style. But it became clear we don’t just copy 100%; we selectively choose what we want. I call it selective borrowing.

For example, Thai education used to be in temples. When Western education came, Vajiravudh College sought to emulate English boarding schools, but the architecture was still Thai. Whether it’s worse or not is a different issue, the point is that it’s a half-hearted adoption.

We are so influenced by the West, but the Thai culture of patronage is so prevalent that the Western influence doesn’t matter at the end of the day. We want to have a better global ranking, but in the higher education sector you begin to see that Thai characteristics are still there in the networks that exist. Thainess is still very prevalent and that Thainess is a seniority culture, a patronage system, connections and cliques.

05844There is a perception among the Thai public that Ananda Mahidol recipients have the endorsement of the Thai elite. Is this true in your case?

I know that connections work in Thailand. During my interviews for the book, senior rectors and university policymakers would often say, “If you want a position at my university, contact me when you graduate.” I did not contact them because I believe the patronage system is killing Thailand and don’t want to be a hypocrite.

I applied to three Thai universities where I knew no one. The first sent me an email and said they would contact me if my qualifications were good enough. The second had put out an open call for a job. When I applied they said they were no longer looking for an applicant because they had someone else in mind. In the case of the third, everyone told me I would have to go and see two people if I wanted to work in this particular faculty. I applied without going to see anyone. What is the point of going to see these people if you have all the qualifications? Despite every reform that Thailand has tried to implement, the patronage system is embedded in every level of higher education to the point that modernity is a joke.

What does that mean?

The current situation is like a feudal system in the name of higher education. Maybe I’m really not good enough, but everyone told me that if I wanted to get a job, I’d have to speak to someone. Then what’s the point of having a degree? This kind of system discourages hard work, productivity and honesty. Once you get accepted, you become a luk nong, or junior, to that person, and you’re indebted for life. It’s disgusting.

My rejections show that even if you get a good scholarship, it doesn’t matter. What matters is who you know.

How does politics play a role in Thailand’s education system?

Politics is not just about national politics, elections and political parties, but it’s about power, and power exists everywhere in everyday life. In higher education, the powerful use their positions and authority against the powerless. And the powerless in this case are academics. Those who adapt to the system get ahead. Those who are in the lab and write academic papers might not necessarily be the ones rewarded.

The politics of higher education is about how rectors, deans and administrators use their positions to advance their agenda at the expense of academic freedom.

Progressive academics who question the status quo are less likely to get funded. For example, if you’re interested in democracy and the role of the state, funding agencies already know you’re going to criticise them. It’s not healthy for the production of knowledge and academic excellence.

It sounds like you have lost hope in Thailand’s educational system. Do we still have a chance to recover?

There is still some hope, but that hope is very dim. My six months of experience at Thammasat University has been self-evident in showing that the patronage system is ingrained at every level. But how can we expect education to change when education in itself is about connections, not meritocracy? Then what’s the incentive to learn?

I am not feeling hopeless but I am very discouraged. Six months in, the system has sapped a lot of my positive energy. We talk about international standards and rankings, but everyday work is full of nonsense. It’s all about who endorses your faculty, who is in your network, who you are bound to. That discourages the acquisition of knowledge and stifles the debate of ideas.

There has been a public movement against quality assessments in Thailand. Are they that bad?

There are some good parts to QAs. But the system that we have is too complicated. It requires you to do so much for so little. Quality assessments are not there for quality education.

Then what are they for?

They are there for bureaucracy. It’s all for having paperwork for paperwork’s sake. For example, how many papers you publish per year is quantity, not quality. Assessments are supposed to be a tool to assess whether you have quality or not. But Thai people do QA for QA’s sake. They think that if they do QA they have quality, which is not true. We’ve ended up paying so much attention to QA.

Should the Office for National Education Standards and Quality Assessment — the core agency responsible for external quality assessments — be abolished?

No. But I believe we should abolish the law that enforces QA. The situation is that all universities have to have internal and external quality assessments under the Education Act. QA is too hard for new universities and too easy for universities such as Chulalongkorn. The majority of universities in Thailand struggle to meet the minimum requirements of QA. We should abolish the law, but Onesqa can still function and do QA for whoever wants it. Onesqa isn’t the problem. The problem is with the system.

What projects are you currently working on?

In 2011, I set up a group called “Unite Thailand”. It was based on the idea that colour in Thailand has been politicised. You can only wear red or yellow. I’m frustrated by the symbolism. You might be wearing the colour green today, for example, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily like the military. To assume that would be an over-simplification. Thai children use colours to have fun. Thai adults use colour to kill the nation.

Unite Thailand has held 14 camps for more than 2,000 students since 2011. In the beginning we wanted students to be free from political colours. Now we don’t really care about it and just want them to have fun.

(*) Amp Rattana Lao is a member of Advisory Board of Modern Diplomacy.

 

First published by Bangkok Post

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How International Law Sight Towards the Coup D’etat Process in Myanmar

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The Union of Myanmar is a sovereign state, where the Capital City is located in Yangon before moved to the Naypyidaw on November 7th, 2005 by the action of Junta’s Military Governance. As known, in the historical background, Myanmar is a country that has been through the grip of a military dictatorship for over six-decade.

Previously, in the brief story of Myanmar, in the 19th century, (in the Konbaung Dynasty),Burma took control of an area that includes a modern territory of Myanmar, also briefly controlled Manipur and Assam. In that era, Britain dominated Myanmar after three of the Anglo-Burma War and thus this country was colonialized by the British. Myanmar got independence in 1948 to be a democratic state but was being coup d’etat by the military in 1962, which General Ne Win wrested the governmental mandate from Prime Minister U Nu, who was in power since 1948. At that phase, this country got passeda tough regime, which gave an unsavory impact, particularly in economic aspect and various inhuman acts, such as against ethnic, where United Nations and many International Organization always reported a significant case about human rights there. In 2011, Junta’s Military was dissolved after the elections in 2010, but this country is still can not refuse all the criticism in the previous measures of the old government to the towards minority ethnic.

In the general elections 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi Party is the winner of the majority parliament, where this is can be the historical point to Myanmar to get a democratization opportunity. Based on the general election result in November 2020, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party (NLD) won 396 of the 476 parliamentary seats, while the military-backed opposition, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), only got 33 seats. However, Myanmar’s Military is still the major force in politic, since The 2008 Constitution (which the controversial rules) is granted the military rights to control the government and that is constitution also reward the Tatmadaw Military to get 25% parliamentary seats in the important aspect in the national security sector, which includes the ministries of interior, border, and security affairs. Specifically, even the NLD dominated parliamentary seats, the military stronghold still controls the government. Hence, the military insists refused the result of the election, and the Press Secretary of the USDP, Doctor Nandar Hla Myint believes there is a fraud of the mass elections, and if this case is not handled in advance, this could make damage or political chaos. The General of Military, Min Aung Hlaing also stipulated, the evaluation of elections is indeed a non-fair and dishonest practice. Thus, before the trial was open by the parliament, the coup d’etat happened by the military. The NLD party led by Aung San Suu Kyi began to gain a political arena until finally today Myanmar falls into the hands of the generals again.

This is the second time the military success to dethrone through democratic governance, previously the coup d’etat itself happened many time, such in 1988 when General Ne Win pension from the military and replaced by Sein Lwin who is well known as a person that brutally to the Pro-Democratic, thus he has been beaten back by the mass action, and Doctor Maung Maung replaced him at that time. But not long after that, there is a coup d’etat internal by the military which takes over by General Jaw Maung who has also established a new party, named State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC).

Various international sanctions have been imposed on Myanmar. In 1996, the European Union decided to ban arms sales to Myanmar. The United States has also imposed sanctions since 1988, prohibiting new investment by its citizens in Myanmar in 1997, then closing the gap for imports of products from Myanmar in 2003.

Regarding the actions by Myanmar’s Military, several International Community has constituted Myanmar as a breach of international values and some country has banned a few aspects to Myanmar as mention above, however, how the International Law views it?

International Law Perspective

Based on the UN Charter views, under Article 1 (1) affirmed, should take effective measures to prevent and thrown a threat of peace where have a correlate with Resolutions of the UN Security Council which called upon States not to recognize a certain authority or even decided that the Member States should refrain from recognizing a certain authority would hardly have been necessary if recognition had no legal meaning. It concludes, the prohibition to recognize new governance from the coup d’etat result, because in case of the legal commitment to the democratic government of a State, the other States only may continue to recognize the exiled democratically elected government a revival as a measure for the protection and consolidation of democratic government. Other than that, as examine in Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States is has to fulfill 4 qualifications, a permanent population; a defined territory; government; the capacity to enter into relations with the other states. In this convention sight, especially in Government point, it complies with the sovereign government that holds the highest power and is formed to carry out the running of the government of a country. As known, Myanmar is currently being a democratic state as the result in the general elections 2020 where Aung San Suu Kyi has won the vote, thus the state should honor and deem in this democratic regime. However, the military is trying to take over the governance back, this form of breaches the democratic rules, wherein this system did not recognize dualism of leadership, as did by Myanmar’s military. Even Myanmar did not sign and ratified this convention, it still ought to be legally binding, since this is recognized by civilized nations as one of the basic international agreements in international law.

Accordance to the coup of Myanmar’s military is not in line with ASEAN’s Charter which contains many democracy references, wherein in the preamble conduct, “Adhering to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance.” Especially Article 1 lists “strengthening democracy, enhancing good governance and the rule of law as among ASEAN’s main purposes.” And also in Article 2 on the organization’s “principles” includes “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government.” Therefore, Myanmar as a member of this charter since 1997, ought to uphold the purpose of this agreement.

Subsequently, the Coup D’etat action by Myanmar’s military is a tantamount form of treason towards a democratic system, which the legitimate government is defeated by the military without a concrete reason, lack of evidence, and unclear accusations, that is just a prejudice of fraud in the elections by Myanmar’s military to the Aung San Suu Kyi party, and most United Nations officials and diplomats voiced alarm at the February 1, 2021 coup and the brutal response to some of the massive protests unsteady Myanmar because fails to comply with the basic rule of law principles.

Myanmar’s Military action is also indeed not in compliance with customary international law that honor by many countries, where refuse to recognize any government set up under these circumstances or any Government elected as a result of these illegal actions. For instance, in some state practices, firstly, there is a Canada action that declares all the Organizations of the American State (OAS) won’t recognize any governance that is made by the coup d’etat, which is Norway to the Haiti Government. Secondly, British action that did not recognize the governance in Cambodia since the genocidal Pol Pot Government of Cambodia and the Rawlings Government in Ghana by the public and the media, which considered formal recognition as tantamount to moral approval. Thirdly, the Belgian Government refused to recognize Mao Tse-tung instead of Tshiang Kai-shek as the Government of the Chinese State, and so on. Since based on both principle and State practice of recognition of the government in International Law.

Protest also provoke by the International Community, Britain, and the European Union that refuse those action by did not recognize the new governance, because the way the military did is indeed unprocedural, as affirmed in Tobar and Wilson doctrines of formally denying recognition to governments coming to power by unconstitutional means and combining them with the element of continued recognition of the democratically elected governments forced into exile by coup d’état or revolution. Strengthen in Stimson Doctrine, examine about the condemn all recognition of new situations by third States is an important mechanism in international relations, and this doctrine was the start of a process of customary international law formation for a rule prohibiting recognition of situations resulting from unlawful acts that in line with the international legal order, as a coup of Myanmar’s Military did to the Aung San Suu Kyi governance.

ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) role as an international organization has presented in the ASEAN election of Myanmar’s general election in 2020 as a form of election observation that is chasing to get an additional handling a political crisis without a coercive way by ASEAN, which should be more legitimacy to the election process, and this might dilute the Tatmadaw prejudice to justify the coup. Moreover, ASEAN responded to this current issues that represent by Brunei as an ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship stipulated, “dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy” in Myanmar, that statement is indeed a democratic principle in the ASEAN Charter since it implied with a non-coercive form of intervention to the internal affairs that honor by each party. Consider sanctions of a breach of this charter is nonexistent, thus it’s only come with the increased statements of concern regarding Myanmar’s internal affairs from each member in the recent years to condemn the coercive instrument. Even if, there is no significant settlement to Myanmar’s coup, this organization still tried to stands to learn important lessons from its actions for developing regional crisis management and prevention mechanisms to fulfill ASEAN’s aspirations of strengthening democracy.

For the foregoing reason, Myanmar’s Military action is indeed opposed by many sources in International Law, contemplate the democracy is the government of the people and for the people (Hans Kelsen), hence in the democratic system is really honor the freedom of speech and the recognition of fair government, and due to Myanmar’s Military measures to NDL Party that led by Aung San Suu Kyi it ought void because no relevant all on times.

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The Mosaic of Defiance: Is Resumption of Democracy Enough?

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photo: Wikipedia

Horns blaring, roads crowded and pots clattering in twilight; this is the new reality of Myanmar. A reality that no one envisaged but developed after years, decades even, of pent-up frustration, anger and subjugation. The recent military coup launched by General Min Aung Hlaing has sketched a passage for the citizenry to break away from the shackled history of the country, to stand beside the leader they admired for decades. Yet, as streets are flooding in protest, resignations being flaunted to register defiance and graffiti colouring the walls in pure rendition of support to the dethroned government, the question stems: Is the government even a true manifestation of democracy? And is reconciliation of the elected government actually what the country needs?Ever so desperately!

After ruling the state for almost six decades, the military, notoriously known as ‘Tatmadaw’ has clinched its talons again after a brief tryst with what apparently was hailed as ‘Democracy’. Wading through the years of tyranny, the public aficionado rose up in the face of Aung San Suu Kyi. Her legacy trailed from her martyred father, Aung San, who etched his name in history through his remarkable struggle towards the independence of Myanmar. Her tireless effort spieled her devotion to the cause of ordinary people, the people tormented at the hands of the ruthless military. Her house arrest post-election debacle in 1990 raved the supporters and her party: National League of Democracy (NLD), swiftly transcended from being an underdog to the archival of Junta for decades to follow.

Her acquittal followed by her landslide victory of the elections marked rejoice as both the military receded and the people-favourite Suu Kyi rose up the ranks to harness the nascent democracy of Myanmar. Yet, backstab doesn’t nearly describe the treatment reciprocated by the venerated figure in power now. The pleas and cries of the oppressed remained unheeded as the hapless witnessed the desecration of humanity whilst Suu Kyi greeted the military leaders with harmony. While NLD revelled in power and control, the tyranny of the military never receded,but only intensified. The raping spree, the economic disparity, the faltering education, the barbed freedom of speech and expression. The unfathomable reality in what was envisioned to be a paradise, a liberation from the draconian rule only proved to be much worse.

Another subsequent landslide victory to NLD was often confused with the popularity and admiration. Suu Kyi lost the reverence years ago when she monopolised the sentiments of the victims. The superficial democracy functioned under the Military chartered constitution. The democratic institutions functioned but with a quarter-quota to the military totalitarians. The world looked at the pretence of a prospering and progressing Myanmar yet it rotted from within. The world questioned the military brutality against Rohingya and Suu Kyi blatantly denied each crime committed; crimes riddled with pain of rape and pillage spanning decades and well into her tenure. More than a million innocent Muslims displaced from their own country as Suu Kyi acquiesced the massacre as if she never truly believed in their innocence. As if she always stood parallel to the totalitarian narrative regarding Rohingya;always visioned them as ‘Terrorists’ and ‘Invaders of the Nation”.

Victory bestowed on NLD yet again however, the minorities were ridiculed and barred from voting. The democracy that never really evaded the drapes of the fascist regime since 2011, started to unknot from the military’s interest. Allegations of mass rigging were chanted yet the disenfranchisement of the minorities like Rohingya was never the part of the picture. The sudden coup took the world by surprise as Suu Kyi, along with the top tier of NLD, descended back to the era of house arrest under falsified charges. The patriots took charge of the streets and the faltering effort to defy the military is in effect ever since.

The schematic arrangement of the military, however, was never questioned by the proponents of peace and tranquillity today. When the minorities suffocated under the guise of democracy, no protests ensued in support. When their celebrated leader joined hands with the tyrants and trampled all over the years and years of struggle and sacrifice of the oppressed, no defiance surfaced. Instead, term after term, Suu Kyi grabbed a majority mandate while the cruelty continued at the same rampant pace either in the name of ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ or ‘National Interest’. Now, the country is witnessing the first peace protest campaign against the military, identical to the like of Thailand and Hong Kong: demanding democracy. No sane mind reflects and questions the tents of democracy itself. The world pushed sanctions in hopes of the revival of the displaced government yet no one questions the authenticity of the rule. The military promises democracy and protestors naively feel vindicated. All that has unfolded and even what is about to transpire is perplexing. What is coherent is the fact that the country that lacks the rudimentary concept of democracy might be able to win back the government but it would never witness the light of true freedom.

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Soekarno & Khrushchev in Building Indonesian-Soviet Relations

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caption photo: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and Indonesian President Soekarno Share a Cigarette, in a banquet at the Tampaksiring Palace, Bali. 1960 (Life/John Dominis)

In the midst of the Cold War, Indonesia emerged as the “Asian Tiger”. First President Soekarno’s charisma had turned the world’s attention to the recent independent archipelago nation. How did Indonesia’s  first president succeed in winning over the Soviet Union? Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union described his impressions of Indonesia and Soekarno in his memoirs. (Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev: Statesman, 1953-1964)

As a newly independent country, Indonesia was certainly not an attractive country for the Soviets who had become one of the largest powers in the world. In his memoirs, he wrote that under Stalin, the Soviet Union did not have any relationship with Indonesia. In fact, he had never even heard Stalin talk about  Soekarno nor Indonesia.

Sukarno organized the Asian – Africa Conference which was held on April 18th to April 24,1955, with the goal of uniting the developing Asian and African nations into the Non-Aligned Movement to counter balance both the United States and the Soviet Union.

Delegates from twenty-nine countries in Asia and Africa convened in Bandung to discuss the common challenges their nations faced in navigating a postcolonial world, had attracted world attention. Since then, Indonesia and particularly President Soekarno was widely discussed and made the headlines in world news- papers, including the Soviet Union. Slowly but surely, Indonesia managed to attract the attention of the Soviet central government.

Indonesia further attracted attention because of being a large country with a population of more than 100 million (in the 1950s), is also a multiethnic country. That interest increased the relationship between the Soviet Union and Indonesia. The first diplomatic relations between Indonesia and the Soviet Union were finally established, while still under Stalin’s leadership.

The following year, in 1956, President Soekarno finally made an official visit to the Soviet Union. Soekarno was greeted with great respect like any other world leader. Khruschev also wrote in his memoir that the Indonesian President an educated and intelligent figure. “Soekarno has both. He is educated and also smart.” Stressed Khruschev in his memoirs.

A visit that made a very good impression in the eyes of the Soviet leader at that time, during which Soekarno expressed his principles and policies during his time as president, to be neutral and not take sides with any country (Non- Aligned).

Even this visit was the beginning of the establishment of a partnership between the two countries. This relationship continued until in the early 1960s, Soekarno invited a delegation of the Soviet government to visit Indonesia.

Khruschev immediately accepted the invitation and said he was very happy with the invitation. Khruschev, leading the delegation consisted of several members of the Central Committee and was accompanied by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Andrei Gromyko.

A warm welcome was also given to the Soviet delegation, where people  flocked out to crowd the streets and wave their hands. This made a deep impression on the delegation who came by saying that “Indonesia is a very beautiful country, Indonesia made a very powerful impression on us with its natural beauty and hu- man warmth. The tropical heat, on the other hand, had a stupefying effect on us”.

This good relationship made the Soviet Union and Indonesia cooperate in several  fields. The assistance included loans from the Soviet Union for the mining of tin and other valuables that were abundant on Indonesian soil, including the provision of tools and equipment.

Significant assistance was also provided in the context of the construction of the main football Stadium Gelora Bung Karno in Senayan, Jakarta, where the Soviets provided a soft loan to the Indonesian government worth of US $ 12.5 million. The construction of this stadium took about 2 years, starting on February 8, 1960, and was officially opened on July 21, 1962, as a complete facility and infrastructure for the 1962 Asian Games.

Currently, Gelora Bung Karno has become an icon of the Indonesian nation, the stadium, which initially could accommodate 110.000 spectators, has often been the venue of several important national events. We are certainly very proud that Indonesia was once one of the ‘great power’ countries in the world, and of course one day, Indonesia will be victorious again and be equal with other developed countries.

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