Lost Stories

Experiences with one of Thailand’s most progressive educators

Photograph - Dr Chinnapat Bhumirat, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education, relaxes at UNESCO's Education for All seminar at Jomtien in 2008 after a professionally delivered lecture. (Retrospective side note: Having untimely run out of batteries for my camera, I was forced to run three kilometers and wade through a drainage ditch in order to buy new ones. Dogs chased me all the way back. This shot was taken while still huffing from lack of breath).

Christmas Eve sizzled with heat, and the steam of slow moving traffic wafted upward into a polluted haze. My taxi scratched forward at a snail's pace as I hurriedly glimpsed through the notes scattered across the backseat. I was on my way to another interview for the Bangkok Post. Accompanying me was a Nicaraguan teacher, who had taught illiterate peasants to read during the Sandinista revolution. I had just finished an article about her and invited her to join me in the festive spirit of Christmas. However, I had to prepare myself without allowing any distractions because this interview was one of particular importance.

The scheduled interview was my gateway to Thailand's Ministry of Education. It was the first time that a high-ranking official consented to an interview with a reporter of the Education section. The administrator was the director of the English Language Institute, Dr Wattanaporn Rangubtook, and although it was an informal evening, I wanted to make sure that I projected the image of sheer professionalism.

I entered the Ministry of Education complex with brief hesitation. I imagined the building as a monolithic cement tower - long, dark, dusty, halls leading to big desks where unapproachable officials scowled from the comfort of badge-saturated uniforms. Luckily, this assumption proved wrong. The staff was remarkably friendly at all levels. They gave me a tour of the building, introducing me to everyone from director to temporarily hired secretary. I did a few preliminary interviews as scheduled and then we broke out the karaoke machine.

Office workers took turns singing as the Christmas buffet was revealed. Before long a festive mood had set in even though no alcohol was being served. I was busy exploring the office, hoping to find a hidden stash of the standard Johnny Walker black, when the room suddenly became silent. Instinctively, I reached for my cup of non-carbonated fruit juice and pretended to be looking at brochures. In walked a group of VIP administrators, and the office acquired a tone of reverence and respect. The office staff rushed to serve them dinner while the more talented karaoke singers were pressed into performance.

The evening's greatest surprise came when one of the VIP's asked for the microphone. He launched into a number of songs in Thai, English, and Japanese - delivering each version in a flawless accent. Later, the same man salsa danced with the Nicaraguan woman that I had brought. She was quite impressed with his accurate footwork. During the course of the evening, the VIP meandered around the room speaking one-on-one with everyone present - from the director of the English Language Institute to the lowly office cleaner. He asked for their opinions about education in Thailand and listened carefully. The same VIP also sought out the foreigners, answering even our more controversial questions in impeccable English.

Who was this mysterious man? He single-handedly broke every stereotype of the Ministry of Education. He was outgoing, inquisitive, articulate, globally aware, and willing to debate ideas about education. I resolved to formally interview this man one day and tell his story. Little did I know on that Christmas Eve that this man would be later revealed as Dr Chinnapat Bhumirat, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education.

Education for All

Shortly after Christmas, I was navigated toward the new role of "desk jockey" at the Bangkok Post. Some members of the Education section had quit their jobs, so I needed to learn and concentrate on their former tasks. I wrote fewer articles and focused on editing instead. As a result, the momentum that I had built up was lost and stories were postponed. Eventually, I heard that UNESCO would hold a weekend seminar under the name Education for All and decided to attend.

Dr Chinnapat Bhumirat had previously served as the Secretary-General of the Thai National Commission for UNESCO, so he was likely to be in attendance. I had tracked down various articles where he spoke of education reforms - a topic that I had been greatly researching. This would be my chance to acquire a formal interview.

The timing was good. Samak Sundaravej was just elected as the new prime minister of Thailand, and his list of department ministers were being sworn in while the seminar was in session. There was much speculation about the appointed education minister and forthcoming polices for 2008. I wasn't scheduled to work on the weekend of the seminar, so I could spend my free time writing the article.

I financed this trip on my own dime. After finishing work on a Friday night, I quickly threw a change of clothes and spare toothbrush into my day pack and climbed aboard a public bus for a six-hour journey to Jomtien. I found the cheapest dive to stay at near the beach (600 baht per night) and shook out the blankets to get rid of the sand and escaped hair from previous occupants. Ants chewed on something decaying in the corner of the room.

At the event, I got promptly loaded up with a forest-load of books, brochures, and handouts. It was like packing 12 bricks into my daypack and climbing Mount Everest. I stashed this behind a sofa and circled the floor like a dehydrated vulture with only a camera, notebook, and pen in hand. In this single swoop, I snapped an overabundance of poorly-lit indoor photos and made enough contacts to publish 2-3 future articles (some later appearing on this website), but my main objective of the event was to track down Dr Chinnapat Bhumirat. To my luck, he noticed me first and greeted me by name. Great memory on the lad!

A pack of reporters soon formed together for a mass interview. There were reporters present from rival newspapers, wire service agencies, and student magazines. In a flashing moment, I was whisked away by the tornado of reporters rushing in for a scoop. They butted in during other reporters' questions, hogged up interview time, and grandstanded with lengthy diatribes about Thailand's failed education system (which could hardly be considered a question). I felt like a discount shopper at a K-Mart special.

I caught myself rating other reporters' questions. I took notes like: that was a stupid question ("Is education important to Thailand's economic growth?"); that question was too loaded for an opener ("Do you think Thailand should apply more of its budget for educating Burmese refugees and other illegal workers?"); that question was sort of a catch-22 ("Do you feel education should be provided totally for free or that not every student deserves schooling?"). The most puzzling reporters of all were the ones that never asked any question.

I left my tape recorder running and patiently waited. My opportunity came as most reporters gradually wandered off to interview people at other tables after obtaining a few quick sound bites to quote in their next edition. When my time finally came to interview him one-on-one, I barely wanted to discuss education. A human connection had already been established between us, and after five hours worth of seminar lectures and the barrage of reporter questions, I wanted to talk about salsa music instead. I inquired how he learned those dance steps.

In time, my sense of responsibility as a journalist kicked in, much like the inert instinct to run when a tiger is trying to bite you, and I conducted a formal interview about education. The interview was difficult on one level. Samak Sundaravej had just been elected, the next education minister was recently announced, and upcoming education policies were still unclear. His responses could only be speculative at this point. Nevertheless, Dr Chinnapat Bhumirat answered each question as frank and honestly as possible, taking time to pause and reflect upon wording. He politely waited until all reporters had finished asking their questions before he stood up.

The Interview

I am a bit hesitant to add quotations from an interview that took place over one year ago. As a writer, it would be nice to retract some of my comments and the more clunky grammar displayed in previous articles. Likewise, Dr Chinnapat Bhumirat might also want to rephrase his earlier quotes, and he has likely altered some of his viewpoints since the seminar.

Nevertheless, after recently listening to the interview once again and looking over my field notes, it continues to strike me that this man knows what he is talking about. He attempts to understand both sides of an issue and establish a balance. He dares to be critical of the education polices of his own political party (which I find unnecessary to reveal within this article). He can pragmatically accept positive qualities in ideas he doesn't fully agree with. He can also point out examples of education policies in other countries and draw comparisons with Thailand's goals. He admits to mistakes and flaws in Thailand's education system and seeks out multiple remedies. Dr Chinnapat Bhumirat belongs to a rare breed of Thai public official; the little spoken of hybrid called an intellectual. Here are a few randomly selected samples from the interview:

"The provision in the constitution of Thailand is that basic education is made available for 12 years, free of charge, with maintained quality and standards; that is the law. In reality, we have to accept that we are still facing many limitations particularly on our budget and other educational resources".

"I don't think the teacher shortage problem will be resolved any time soon" because employing a new crop of adequately trained teachers would take up too much of the education budget.

"The One Million Laptop project should be a flagship program in terms of education" because it would make computers more accessible to kids in rural areas. "We face the problem of teacher shortage, so making computers more available to the children can help alleviate the problem". All the schools could be connected. This would help provide distance learning. The expense of Thai textbooks could be reduced by making them and other educational software available online.

Science and math programs could be broadcast via satellite to hard-to-reach primary and secondary students on a Ministry of Education channel. "The project will be a step toward promoting literacy and boosting education".

"The One Scholarship, One District scheme failed because students returned early due to their lack of language skills. Students also overspent abroad".

Nobody has to agree with these ideas, but it should be acknowledged that Dr Chinnapat Bhumirat is seeking realistic solutions and willing to tackle difficult issues. He is not afraid to explain government policies to outsiders.

Lost Opportunities

I put together a draft quickly after returning home from the Education for All conference. Unfortunately, the nearly finished product was put on the backburner while I worked on my subediting duties. More colleagues quit, and I had to take on extra responsibilities that required overtime. For example, I wrote the Report Card and Happenings columns, which provided weekly updates about education and cultural events (though my work was never credited), and I also spent hours tracking down and legitimately "pinning" wire-service stories and pix from around the world. As a result, the timeliness of the Dr Chinnapat article soon expired.

Departmental politics also started to unravel at the Education section of the Bangkok Post. Conflicts arose relating to my required duties as a subeditor/writer and opposing ideas about the artistic direction of our section. When no compromise was reached, I decided to quit and go back to teaching - a move that I have never regretted. In my last month, I furiously chipped away at a number of articles trying to get them into print before I left (some of these are now readable in my more recent submissions on www.ajarn.com). For a time, I referred to these articles as my lost stories.

Before long, Thailand fell into political conflict and the global economy started to crash. The issue of improving education was quickly overshadowed in the following chaos.

In 2008, Thailand has experienced a lot of turbulence. Political protesters blocked the government house so that parliament was forced to set up camp at Don Mueang airport. In November, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), also known as the yellow shirts, followed this aggressive act by shutting down the country's two international airports for eight days. Over 350,000 tourists were stranded and unable to return home.

During these protests, while Dr Chinnapat Bhumirat was Deputy Permanent Secretary for Education, arsonists attempted to set fire to the Education Ministry at least six times. The unidentified protestors threw petrol bombs into the building housing the Office of the Private Education Commission. Regardless of one's political stance, the targeting of schools and other academic facilities remains a truly vile and unjustifiable act. The physical damage to the building was limited, but education suffered as an early casualty.

Fractured Kaleidoscope

One consequence of the yellow-shirt protests is that education strategies were put on hold. Political instability led to the removal of many government officials, and this made the future of budget allotments and mega-projects unpredictable.

The ever emerging Kaleidoscope of cabinet officials is difficult to keep track of. Five different prime ministers have held office during 2008, starting with General Surayud Chulanont, who was placed into office by coup leaders and finally stepped down in February 2008. Prime Ministers have not held office for long ever since. Samak Sundaravej lasted less than nine months, Somchai Wongsawat didn't even make it to three, Chaovarat Chanweerakul became acting prime minister for about two weeks, and Abhisit Vejjajive took over the position in December 2008. Nobody yet has remained in position long enough to have an impact on education policy.

Thailand has also gone through education ministers as quickly as plastic straws on a class field trip. When I first met Dr Chinnapat Bhumirat, the education minister was Dr Wichit Sri-sa Arn - a very wise and progressive educator with a solid background in Thailand's university system. Once elected, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej quickly appointed Somchai Wongsawat, the brother-in-law of Thaksin Shinawatra, as his Education Minister. Boonlue Prasertsopha and Pongsakon Unnopporn were assigned positions as Deputy Education Ministers as well. Not one of the three people had a prior background as an educator.

After Prime Minister Samak was removed from office for badly torturing phad thai kung on a public cooking show, Education Minister Somchai Wongsawat was next in line. His two deputy education ministers got lost in the political shuffle and nobody has heard much from them since.

Srimuang Charoensiri was appointed as next education minister, despite having zero background as an educator. His qualifications included overseeing important financial matters such as distributing money to Thai Rak Thai candidates and MPs in Isan. At one point, Srimuang Charoensiri was slated to become energy minister, but Prime Minister Samak removed him from his list of potential cabinet ministers. In retaliation, Srimuang did not support Samak's re-nomination to the office of prime minister. Paybacks are a bitch in the Land O' Smiles.

Education Minister Srimuang Charoensiri's reign generated much controversy during his 2-3 months in office. He planned to refinance the massive debt owned by teachers by using approximately 100 billion baht from the Social Security Fund. In addition, Saowabha Vocational School used its own funds, staff, and students to provide catering services and souvenir production for the wedding of Srimuang Charoensiri's son - writing it off as a special "training program".

With the collapse of the People's Power Party, a new round of politicians took office. This time Democrats seized control and Prime Minister Abhisit was placed in charge. His choice for the next education minister was Jurin Laksanawisit - a veteran politician of the Democrat party. He is highly noted for his role as a watchdog that brought many defamation lawsuits against the opposing party.

Like most education ministers before him, Jurin Laksanawisit lacks a significant background as an educator, but some of his strategies for improving schools are starting to emerge. One idea is to hire 13,000 more school administrators, so that teachers can focus on other tasks. However, the education budget is now greatly limited due to the crash in the global economy and subsequent decline in tax revenue. The bigger issue now is where to find or borrow alternative funds to finance future projects. The tub has been draining while people were busy arguing over their right for the next bath.

Jurin Laksanawisit also has two deputy education ministers to help him: Chaiwuti Bannawat (Democrat) and Narisarat Chawaltanpithak (Puea Pandin). They may of may not have backgrounds in education, but at this point I have become too jaded and cynical to continue researching. The Kaleidoscope has broken into fragmented splinters, and it is time to repair it.

The position of education minister has become a big relay race where the runners are only allowed a handful of sand, which they must pass along before it filters through their fingers. In this hyper-competitive hustle it is Thai students that are ultimately getting lost.

Chance for Continuity

The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), also known as the red shirts, started a violent riot in April 2009 - just in time to celebrate the Songkran holiday. In the opposite corner, the yellow shirts are also back in action after attempts were made to assassinate one of their leaders. Thailand now has blue shirts, green shirts, and white shirts on the scene. There is little left to do but wait and thank Buddha that Thailand is running out of primary colors.

Meanwhile, the Education section of the Bangkok Post has been cut down to 4-four pages per week. The Report Card and Happenings columns appear only on rare occasions in downsized versions. Most "wire" stories are now too preoccupied with education in the United States to explore issues in other foreign countries. However, you can still get updates about the current situation in Thailand by typing in "Sirikul Bunnag" into the Bangkok Post search engine. The Education section hasn't been printed for a month, and I am wondering if anyone has noticed. At one time, I felt so much passion while "pinning" my articles to the collective Learning Post. There are so many hidden stories about education that deserve to be told; miss the opportunity and they will get folded, filed, and lost.

For this reason, one anniversary after quitting my job at the Bangkok Post, I have dusted off my article about an astute educator, which never made it to print. As I read it once gain I realize the value of people like Dr Chinnapat Bhumirat. He gives Thailand's academic community something that it truly thirsts for: continuity. While politicians and education ministers come and go, he has stood his ground as an educator. He continues to participate in discussions about education; respecting opposing viewpoints, reevaluating his own, and striving to find a balance. I can still picture him wandering down the halls of a Ministry of Education building. He is probably speaking with an office worker about a Thai school right at this moment.

At the end of the day, education is not about nicely packaged sound bites to journalists or catchy theories presented at academic conferences. What matters most is action. It is somehow comforting to know that people like him are busy working on projects, generating ideas, and realistically studying the tight budget. The truth is that there are many employees at the Ministry of Education like him. They are firmly planted as pillars in Thai education, even when local politics are frantically swirling around them. We don't usually hear their lost stories, but they are there with a lasting commitment to education.

Enough talk about politics and education for now; it's time to get back to school!


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