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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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Southeast Asia

Visit of Chinese Foreign Minister to Southeast Asia

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Following the visit of Kamala Harris, the vice president of the USA to Vietnam and Singapore, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited the two countries as well as Cambodia to engage the regional players. Vietnam has become the cynosure of major powers such as the US, Japan, and China. The visit of Japanese Defence minister and the US defence secretary happening within a period of three months. US defence secretary visited Vietnam in July 2021 while the Japanese defence minister visited Vietnam in September 2021.

Given the hyper activism which was shown by the two members of the Quad, the Chinese foreign minister sensing these strategic dynamics choose to visit Vietnam to comfort the ideological partner that China would be acting constructively. The Chinese foreign minister during the visit to the country clearly stated that Vietnam should stop entertaining extra regional powers in South China Sea and resist from complicating the situation while magnifying the maritime territorial disputes. This clearly shows that China was rattled by the very fact that US has been undertaking extra efforts in engaging Vietnam through vaccine and health diplomacy as well as creating favourable conditions for Vietnam to enhance trade relations with the US. As part of a reassurance strategy, China has committed to donating 3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and is willing to support Vietnam in their fight against COVID-19 pandemic.

In the last two years the Vietnam foreign ministry has been criticising Chinese manoeuvres in South China Sea and threatening legitimate activities of Vietnam in its Exclusive Economic Zone. The illegal activities undertaken by Chinese survey ships and fishermen militia in Vanguard bank, Reed Bank and Whitsun Reef were a manifestation of Chinese hyper activism. This has been criticised by the US state department as well as members of international community.

In the second leg of the visit, the Chinese foreign minister visited Singapore and had fruitful interactions with his counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan. Given the fact that Singapore is slowly emerging as a critical lynchpin in the larger Quad objectives in the region. Therefore, for China, engaging the city state is critical for securing its strategic periphery and engaging Singapore for its trade and economic interests. The proposal of development cooperation proposal by the Chinese foreign minister is to get assurance from the Southeast Asian neighbours regarding good neighbourliness and commitment to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) undertaken by the China in the maritime domain.

The Chinese foreign minister had visited almost nine countries in the last one year when Vietnam was the Chair of ASEAN. This was primarily to counter the efforts which have been made by the high-level delegations of the United States government which included the visit by the United States vice president Kamala Harris, US defence secretary, the US deputy Secretary of State and the visit of armed forces officials to the Southeast Asian countries. China’s neighbourhood diplomacy clearly shows the anxieties from the point of view of China after US has intensified surveillance and intelligence activities as the latest Malabar defence exercises(25th edition) which concluded recently near Guam. Chinese assertive activities have been operationalised by the Chinese naval ships, Chinese Coast Guard, Chinese hydrographic survey ships, and the Chinese maritime boat militia which has been threatening navies and fishermen of littoral countries in South China Sea. The military exercises undertaken by China closer to the contested waters in South China Sea, particularly in the Paracel islands, which belongs to Vietnam, and strengthening the illegal structures built on those islands is primarily aimed to counter the group sails undertaken by the US and its alliance partners as well as any concerted activity undertaken by the Quad countries.

The visit to Cambodia was expected given the fact that the politics in Cambodia is heating up because of the Hun Sen political ambitions of placing his son at the helm of power and helping Chinese to set up a full-fledged Chinese naval base at Ream naval base.  The US projects in that region has been stopped and relocated to other areas which was not liked by the US agencies.

The vaccine diplomacy which has been adopted by the Chinese foreign minister to address the deficit of vaccines in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam is symbolic.

In this context it is also important to investigate the Japanese overtures in this regard. The Japanese have signed a defence partnership agreement with the Vietnamese which assures the exports of Japanese defence equipment to the socialist country. Under the partnership it is expected that not only arms and equipment, but also technological support and training of the technicians will be undertaken by the Japanese forces. This is the first of its kind defence partnership agreement between Japan and Vietnam showcasing the growing trust between the two countries. There have been certain writings which allude to the fact that a trilateral between India, Vietnam and Japan might be in the offing. Scholars such as Gitanjali Sinha Roy feel that Japan with its technological supremacy, and India with its large armed forces along with Vietnam’s strategic location will act as a common platform to address regional security concerns in the Indo -Pacific region. India being a regional player in the Indian Ocean region and Japan being a formidable power in the Pacific would add heft to the larger maritime security objectives.

The involvement of the European powers in the security of indo Pacific region with reference to the UK, France and Germany showcases that many players would be involved in ensuring maritime security in the region for trade and commercial aspects.

This visit of Chinese foreign minister should be seen from the point of view of reassuring Chinese commitment to the regional peace while at the same time giving a veiled warning to the neighbours that China is still a very potent power in South China Sea, and it would not allow any intervention by the extra territorial powers which tries to intervene in the South China Sea dispute. This visit clearly highlights that China has been startled by the active diplomacy undertaken by countries such as Japan and US and why keeping countries such as Singapore and Vietnam in good humour is critical for Chinese interests.

Vietnam’s ingenuity in handling diplomatic relations with the US, China and Japan and maximizing national strategic interests is appreciated. Through skilful handling of relations with these three countries, Vietnam has become a partner contributing to the peace and security of the region and affirming its central role in Southeast Asia.

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The new AUKUS partnership comes at the cost of sidelining France, a key Indo-Pacific player

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Image credit: ussc.edu.au

Here is my quick take on the new AUKUS security partnership announced on Wednesday (September 15), by the leaders of three key English-speaking countries – Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. But, the move has invited displeasure from France, a key player and partner in the Indo-Pacific with permanent presence in the region.

***

US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – leaders of three key English-speaking countries – have announced a new trilateral security partnership in the Indo-Pacific on Wednesday, abbreviated as AUKUS. This came a week before the in-person Quad summit, aimed at deepening cooperation in a range of defence arenas such as artificial intelligence, cyber and quantum technologies and undersea capabilities. It is the latest in a series of moves taken by the Biden administration to engage proactively in the Indo-Pacific, keeping China in mind.

A key initiative of the new AUKUS partnership is to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines within the next 18 months. But, this comes at the cost of Canberra putting a halt on the ocean-class submarine development programme agreed with France known as the “Future Submarine Programme”. As Australia strengthens its age-old alliance with the United States and welcomes a deeper British presence in the region, the stakes are at an all-time high for Canberra.

The French Response

When China denounced the new trilateral partnership by referring to “Cold-War mentality and ideological prejudice”, it was expected. However, what stood out was the French response. A joint statement by the French Defence and Foreign Ministers following the announcement of AUKUS stated that it was ‘contrary to the letter and the spirit of the cooperation which prevailed between France and Australia’, and that the American choice reflects ‘an absence of coherence that France can only observe and regret’.

Australia is also a member of the Quad and the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing alliance that includes Canada and Australia as well. With AUKUS, Australian military will be closely linked with that of the United States. However, the UK has not had a permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific for decades now. On the other hand, France is the only European power currently present in the region with nearly two million of its citizens and more than 7,000 military personnel, spread across a vast maritime stretch from the Réunion Island in the Western Indian Ocean to French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the South Pacific.

In a catchy tweet, the Ambassador of France to the United States, Philippe Etienne noted,“Interestingly, exactly 240 years ago the French Navy defeated the British Navy in Chesapeake Bay, paving the way for the victory at Yorktown and the independence of the United States”.He was just reminding the Americans of their historical ties with the French that goes beyond the Statue of Liberty.

‘Global Britain’ to align with the Indo-Pacific vision

The AUKUS is specifically hurting French sentiments at multiple levels. Being a reliable partner in the region that proactively engages in a broad network of trilaterals and minilaterals involving Quad partners Japan, India, Australia and other regional players, France was much better suited than the UK to form a defence partnership, in my view, when the region needs timely action. The concept of ‘global Britain’ has made its entry into public discourse only recently. The way ahead for the re-emergence of the UK from its post-war decline seems a long one, vis-à-vis dealing with a rising China.

In contrast, the French and their military installations are already in the region. It could’ve been considered better for amplifying collective defence capability and interoperability in the region and to empower the Australian military, rather than partnering with a dormant and erstwhile regional power in Asia and the Pacific like the UK, at a time when the region faces ‘unprecedented challenges’, as noted in the French statement of response.

Washington has shared the technology of nuclear submarines only once before with the UK, almost seven decades ago. Australia’s geographic advantage and deteriorating ties with China makes it a rightful next choice. It seems the new Anglophone trilateral partnership is a systematic US-led attempt to involve the UK, particularly in a post-Brexit scenario, to play a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific.

A new addition to the regional architecture

In the context of the disruptive rise of an increasingly assertive China, it is understandable to have a variety of partnerships and minilaterals among maritime democracies that could complement the Quad and the ASEAN-led regional institutions in the Indo-Pacific. Instead of inviting the UK to the Quad itself, the Biden administration chose to form a new sister grouping in the region, perhaps with the intention of being more flexible. In the present geopolitical scenario, empowering Australia’s defence capabilities is understandably a timely move, but the choice of partners is the real issue here.

It is reasonable that not every ally or partner needs to be in every alliance or coalition, however, time-tested regional players should not be ignored in a way how the US and Australia did to France with the underlying intention of bringing the UK back into the region’s newly evolving geopolitical equation.

What Australia should be careful about?

No matter how the US chooses to hedge the situation with France, Australia should deepen its bilateral partnership with France, being a key Indo-Pacific player with permanent regional presence. The ‘2+2’ ministerial consultations between the two countries, which was inaugurated last month, needs to be built upon.

Nuclear-powered submarines could definitely boost Australia’s maritime deterrence capabilities. However, handling and operating them is a highly-complex and risky manoeuvre. So, it is important that the move should not be given the impression of being escalatory. Moreover, Australia, being a non-nuclear weapon state, should reinforce its commitment to the global non-proliferation regime and the rules-based order.

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Making sense of a rugged political terrain in the Land of Golden Pagodas

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Eight months have passed since Myanmar’s coup d’état. What are the domestic factors that contribute to the country’s grim political scenario? What are the odds that work against Burmese democracy? Here, I look back at the chequered political past of Myanmar to find answers.

***

After a decade of relative calm, the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese armed forces are referred to, smuggled power from the civilian leadership by staging a repugnant coup in February this year, led by its 65-year old-leader, General Min Aung Hlaing. This was executed just a few days before the convening of Myanmar’s newly-elected Parliament and three months after the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory in the election held in November 2020 in the country’s second freely-contested polls since 2015.

As the junta came back to haunt the newest democratic experiment in Myanmar again, history repeats itself. Even before the coup, the Tatmadaw’s dominant posture in the administration was strongly evident, as twenty-five per cent of seats in the Parliament and key portfolios in the Cabinet were reserved for the military, according to the Constitution promulgated by the military itself in 2008.

Déjà vu 1988

Apparently, the Tatmadaw and its aging leader were outraged by the continuing and overwhelming popularity that democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi still enjoyed in the weeks following the 2020 elections, despite all the allegations of her playing second-fiddle to the Tatmadaw. The coup d’état and the subsequent crackdown on democracy set the clock back to 1988.

It was in that year, a large wave of protests erupted against the military that began as a student-led movement in the city of Rangoon (now, Yangon), which soon spread across the country. It came to be known as the ‘8-8-88 Uprising’ or the ‘People Power Movement’ because the protests peaked on 8 August 1988. Suu Kyi’s NLD party emerged from this movement.

Burma was separated from British India as a separately-administered colony eleven years before the country gained independence. The Buddhist-majority state was free of British rule in 1948 under the leadership of people like U Nu and Aung San with the hopes of ushering in a parliamentary democracy. Unfortunately, in the next fourteen years, the country would witness the very first military coup in its history since independence, in 1962, led by General U Ne Win, who would go on to rule the country with an iron fist for the next twenty-six years.

Absence of a political consensus

Right from its independence in 1948, the Land of Golden Pagodas has been a deeply divided nation along the lines of ethnicity, religion, and political loyalty, with the majority Burmans dominating the upper echelons of power. Myanmar comprises of 135 ethnic groups in total. It includes the majority Burmans, who constitute two-thirds of the population, minority groups such as the Shan, the Karen, the Rohingya, the Kachin, the Mon and other smaller groups. A grave absence of political consensus among diverse ethno-religious groups and their respective parties had always been a bane for Myanmar’s overall stability.

Myanmar’s decades-long inter-ethnic tensions and sectarian violence have been a historical factor behind the rise of popularity of the Tatmadaw among the people, who consider themselves as the only force that could bring-in stability to the country, an idea that resonates with a substantial proportion of the majority Burmans even today. But, a pro-democracy resistance movement is underway on the other side, with the military’s recent excesses leading to many of its supporters switching sides.

When the Tatmadaw was seen a beacon of stability

The Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) coalition dominated Myanmar’s political scene from 1948 to 1958. Contrary to popular beliefs today, the military was seen as a beacon of stability in the country’s immediate post-independence period as numerous sectarian groups battled each other. In the 1950s, the country had to deal with scattered left-wing insurgencies too, along with the widely prevalent ethnic conflicts.

Even as early as 1958, when the affairs of the state were slipping away, the Tatmadaw was asked by the civilian government to step in as a temporary caretaker government. The military remained loyal to the elected government for fourteen years since independence and had even facilitated the general elections of 1960.

At a moment when the military’s public support rose considerably among the people, catalysed by a corrupt civilian government led by the AFPFL, the Tatmadaw decided to take matters into their own hands by staging a coup in 1962. The junta adopted a new Constitution in 1974, suspending the one previously promulgated in 1947.

Soon, the military emerged as a repressive force and their socialist state policy known as the Burmese Way to Socialism isolated Myanmar from the rest of the world from 1962 to 1988 and devastated the economy. Around the same time, Buddhist ultra-nationalism perpetrated by fear-mongering monks also thrived under the regime at the cost of intimidation of the minority groups.

The dawn of a new epoch and the return to history

With the people realising their folly in trusting the Tatmadaw, the uprising of 1988 happened. Around the same time, young Suu Kyi returned to her home country after completing her studies abroad. Witnessing the scathing power abuse of the ruling junta hands-on, she rallied her fellow Burmese citizens for the cause of Myanmar’s democratic transition. The uprising can also be viewed as a direct consequence of the emergence of the NLD, which contested and won the elections of 1990. But, the military refused to accept the results and prevented a civilian government from exercising power.

Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest by the junta in the following year. She continued her struggle and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She was detained for fifteen years in total between 1990 and 2010. Elections were held in 2010 and the junta was ‘supposedly’ dissolved the following year, only to re-emerge in 2021.

As per estimates by the United Nations, around 230,000 people were displaced as of June this year, because of the military action and retaliatory attacks either by civilian rebels or by one armed resistance group or the other. As of July this year, more than a thousand people were allegedly killed by the junta, with thousands of protesters arrested, detained, or charged, and many even just disappeared beyond trace. Recently, the shadow resistance movement that calls itself the ‘National Unity Government’ of Myanmar had gone underground since the February coup and has called for a nation-wide ‘people’s defensive war’ against the Tatmadaw.

Regional voices and the road to peace

Myanmar is a member of the ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) since 1997. But, the organisation, despite its diplomatic efforts, was unable to prevent the coup and the subsequent civilian unrest in the country. In fact, the ASEAN’s negotiations in its capital Jakarta, in April, and the Five-Point Consensus that emerged from it have been seemingly side-lined by the junta. ASEAN envoys met with the army leaders in June and the organisation’s latest proposal for a ceasefire until the end of 2021, put forward in August-end, has been reportedly denied by the military.

Due to geo-economic and border security considerations, neighbouring China and India happen to have good ties with the Tatmadaw. However, a broad-based civilian support is the only way to ensure the army’s sustained legitimacy. And, the best solution to bring back real stability in Myanmar is to agree on a mutually-accepted power-sharing agreement between the shadow civilian leadership and the military that would secure unequivocal internal peace within the country.

Social cohesion continues to be a distant dream for Myanmar and the Burmese people, the absence of which continues to be the root cause of all political wrongs in the country. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is making the crisis worse. In the end, the military cannot afford to antagonize the United Nations and the democracies of the world for long, especially of the West, with their economic sanctions in place, and the dire curbs placed on the Burmese people’s genuine democratic aspirations will go out of the reckoning again in just a matter of time.

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