The Revolution Inside

By Ed Rush

Feature story - April 1, 2000
Social action was to be considered the culmination of the education process - if the students didn't take direct action to change a negative social reality then whatever had occurred could not be termed "education".

Atcharaporn Janmethakulwat was typical of her breed. Middle-class and 20, with a place at one of Thailand's most prestigious universities, she had been indoctrinated since birth to buckle down and do the best for herself and her family. She was vaguely aware that many people her age were living in vastly inferior circumstances - some even dying under bombs or rotting in slums - but she was able to find comfort in the popular local version of the Buddhist law of khamma. "It is believed that the poor did bad, mad or cruel things in the past, and now they receive bad things as a result of their past actions," she says. "I was selfish because I thought I had a lot of duties - I had to study, to be a good child for my parents, and I had to work hard; it wasn't my business to care about other people."

Atcharaporn had been my student for several years and I was well used to the demure narrowness that she and her friends seemed to represent. As the United States instigated its cruel and vengeful smashing up of Iraq, I looked at Atcharaporn and wondered if there lived in her any of the spirit that caused her parents' and older siblings' generations to overthrow two military dictatorships. Would she question what was happening, or even care? The military-style uniforms and badges she and her friends wore, and the college club t-shirts with their exhortations to seniority, order and tradition didn't give me much hope. Cannon-fodder, I caught myself thinking.

But I was determined to try and engage them on this. The wrongness of that which was occurring in Iraq, and the slithering falseness of the justifications for it all, was filling me with same sense of angry frustration I felt in the 1980s in Perth, Australia, when Ronald Reagan was at his irrational peak. I felt - still do - that the traditional bleat by Thai students that history and politics is "boring" was the voice of automata - they didn't really know what they were saying. I had a hunch that if they could see the actual effects of state terror on real people, they'd shrug off their detachment and start to care.

So I ditched the syllabus I had planned for the advanced English language skills class and asked them to write down all that they knew about the invasion of Iraq and its causes. Initially, Atcharaporn and her classmates were very confused. "I thought we were only supposed to study in the classroom and not to find out about social problems," she said. For my part, I had that sinking feeling familiar to many expatriate teachers in Asia - there was polite interest, and a kind of engagement, but a fog of non-comprehension seemed to waft through the room. I could almost hear them: "What's this bloke on about?"

Adding to the complexity was my decision to reorder the power structure within the classroom. I have long been attracted to Brazilian educator Paulo Freire's idea that the only defensible objective of pedagogy is the development of a critical consciousness. For this to occur, he said, the teacher had to resign from the position of "expert" and allow the "students" to discover their version of the truth, in whatever form was relevant to them. Furthermore, Freire said, social action was to be considered the culmination of the education process - if the students didn't take direct action to change a negative social reality, he said, then whatever had occurred could not be termed "education".

So we had a class where there was no "teacher" and nothing to be learned from books, but where there was an expectation to change a negative reality which they hadn't even defined yet. This had a predictably destabilizing effect: "(In our system) the teacher is the expert and I must listen to what the teacher says and do everything the teacher says," Atcharaporn says.

Instead of receiving a syllabus and teacher direction, the students were given a huge compilation of alternative sources of analysis and research on the invasion and sanctions. There were also several guiding (democratically-agreed) principles: that violence is a source of fear and suffering, that the best way to reduce the incidence of terrorism is not to engage in it, and that we should not attack others unless they attack us first. Furthermore, the students agreed to evaluate themselves on the depth of their analysis of the invasion, their efforts to meet with and present the stories of those who had suffered as a result of state violence, and the successfulness of their social action.

It would suit the purposes of a small article like this if I could say the students immediately swung into action and by the end of the term had radicalized the general community against the use of massive and illegal force by our political allies. But, as all activists know, the process of shedding and working against cruel and irrational beliefs is slow and uneven. For Atcharaporn, it was a particularly debilitating time: "I was surprised and felt sad and unhappy by the media and the government," says Atcharaporn. "I have no trust in them now because they showed they were controlled by big and powerful countries. The message that was sent out showed positive messages of the USA even though people didn't support them. People know that wars are so bad and destroy everything."

But she stuck at it, and things over time started to make sense to her. First to dawn on her was the emptiness of the reasons for the military attack on Iraq: "We found out that Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction, but that they had the second largest amount of oil in the world," she said. "The US wants to control the oil and to show their power to Arab countries...that's why they attacked."

Still, the injustice of the invasion may have remained an easily forgotten abstraction had her research group not decided to record the stories of local people who had been maimed, both physically and mentally, by war weapons produced by corporations and governments in the service of ideological fantasies.

Atcharaporn tells here of the meeting she and her group had with Tawee Khemprapha, who had his leg blown off near the Cambodian border by a landmine sown by some unknown army: "Thawee has no right leg and a deformed right arm, and has very little money. But he is a very nice person and he thinks what we all think - that the government can't be trusted," she said. Following this interview, Atcharaporn and her friends talked to other villagers who had been even more severely injured. Never before had they even considered spending large amounts of their own money and traveling hundreds of miles to see people whom they had always thought of as "different to us". It was an instructive experience: "We were impressed by Thawee because we didn't know that people like him lived in Thailand," she said. "Thawee doesn't fear anything, even though he has only one leg. He helps everybody he can and he never lost his courage."

When I was watching the presentation by Atcharaporn's group months later I was struck by the truthfulness of a statement made by the eminent American professor and activist, Howard Zinn. In the introduction to his "People's History of the United States", Zinn criticizes the tendency of educators to bury stories of atrocities in a welter of other facts, in the hope that they will seem "objective" about the causes of the suffering. Says Zinn: "The learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences. It is therefore more deadly." It was a thrilling experience for me to see how hard these students worked to seek out and present stories of human suffering when they were given the freedom to do so.

It's a new term now and Atcharaporn and her classmates are preparing for a standardized English exam. In many ways it's the type of mechanical work they have done right through their school and college education - the unreflective mastering of techniques which do not address the critical questions of why the material is being learned and in whose interests it has been prepared. These are points that were immediately picked up on by Atcharaporn. "I don't want this old style. I like to have freedom. I don't want to be under the control of other people because I can open my mind to know everything - not just things in textbooks, but the facts, things that are reality, that address the problems of the world." Encouragingly, Atcharaporn and her friends have decided that they will not accept the mandated teaching style this term. In their words, the things they study must make sense.

I mentioned before that one of the chief aims of this project was for the students to develop understanding of a negative social reality and then take correction action. In Atcharaporn's case, this took the form of a commitment to provide research and lobbying support to land mine victims in the Thai/Cambodia border areas. More importantly, however, was the alteration that took place within: " I've changed the way I think. In the past I felt I was a little point in Thailand in the world, and I had no power at all," she says. "Now I know how to complain, and to participate, and to represent people to the media. I feel now that I can do a lot of things for other people and I can help solve some of their problems."

Noam Chomsky once said that social advancement has only ever occurred in history when lots of anonymous people have joined together and worked hard towards a shared goal. In that sense the successes of the civil rights movement were not the result of actions by Martin Luther King, but of the thousands "whose names we will never know, and who may have been killed, and so on". It was this spirit that caused Atcharaporn and her classmates to slough off their feelings of individual powerlessness and to try to do something. It led them to Greenpeace, to a new understanding of the world, and - it seems likely - a way of changing the future for the better.

Ed Rush is an English lecturer at Kastetsart University in Thailand. Atcharaporn Janmethakulwat is completing her B.A in English at the same university.