Sunday, September 28, 2008

A friend has been in touch and produced this website with the case for extraditing Thaksin.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Teacher's diary: day four

It's the second day of exams today and I am proctoring grade nine class 'a', the same class in which one student cheerfully informed me that "Japan won the Vietnam War". Actually, I like this class but I really don't expect much from them in terms of exam scores, they have a reputation as being very weak and difficult to control.

Every class lesson and every exam should have both a farang and Thai teacher in the room. I am very lucky, as I have an excellent support teacher. Her name is Bun. While some Thai teachers try to help but make things worse, some couldn't care less about support and some purposely make things harder for foreign teachers, Bun is none of these. We have a similar style, stern but with plenty of love underneath it. However, as she is a lot older than me and of course speaks the native language, she can get her point across well.

These kids know me so I don't have to give much of a prep talk, I explain the rules they already know: write everything in English, nothing on your desk except question sheet, answer sheet and stationary, if you need help, put up your hand. No rocket science involved.

As they begin, I wander up and down the room as I always do. My mind inevitably wanders over various topics. I'm pleased about the exams this semester. Last semester, our exam sheet came back from 'head office' less than twenty four hours before the start of exams. Of course, nearly all questions submitted by our teachers were thrown out and those of the HO teachers used. In addition, the HO school, of course, know exactly what will be in the exam a month beforehand, we have less than a day and usually not a single class period in which we know the actual exam questions. This is no accident.

Of course, a good teacher has the students well verses in all the curriculum, but I defy any teacher to say they honestly wouldn't want to see the exam at least one class before it starts.

This time, thanks to some pressure being applied in the right places, we got a whole three days to preview the exam, take out incorrect (I mean literally incorrect such as: "Which of The Earth's moons...."etc.) questions and prepare the students. Most subjects seem to have quite a balanced set of questions for once, too.

My mind snaps back to the present as a student raises his hand. The students are permitted to ask for explanations of questions they don't understand. Naturally, most of them will craftily try to elicit an answer from the teacher during the discussion. I don't mind that, I'll happily drop a clue or two for students who try hard during class. Some teachers go overboard and basically answer half the questions for the students, I try to avoid that and take a more balanced approach.

My own exam is in the afternoon. Every teacher is permitted to do this before his or her own subject's exam. I don't expect it to help much with this class though.

I give the students a prep speech beforehand. We run over some aspect of human history. It bugs me slightly that however many times I explain that the idea humans originated from Africa about 200,000 years ago (yes I know there are other dates flying around, no smart assed corrections please! :-) ) is what scientists currently believe, the kids always take it as a solid fact. This is probably a cultural issue: students here are taught that you don't question what the teacher says, period.

The exam contains questions about Thai kings, the development of human beings and important events of the last one hundred years.

I won't know how well they did until I'm done marking but most of them seem to finish quickly. With the exception of one crafty student using a well placed face mirror to view his friend's sheet, I don't catch anyone cheating. Now it's time for the dull marking session to begin.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Somchai Wongsawat

Who is he?

Brother in law of Thaksin, a former judge and justice minister. Thailand's new Prime Minister and the first Thai PM whose name I pronounced correctly at the first attempt.

What happened to the previous PM?

Samak Suntarajev was another victim of the battle between the (democratic) executive and the (undemocratic) judiciary. He was found to have been in dereliction of duty by appearing on a TV cooking show whilst serving as PM. In reality, Samak accepted no payment. His driver was given 4,000 baht, which would probably be less than the PM kept in his back pocket for a trip to the Seven Eleven. Samak loves cooking and his appearance on the show would be no different to a UK MP who liked football appearing on "A Question of Sport".

The guilty charge removed Samak but left him open for reappointment. However, factional infighting led to a new appointment.

Will Somchai make a good PM?

In theory, yes. He is very different to Samak in his smooth style of speaking and modern style of presentation and mannerisms. He is intelligent, progressive and experienced.

So things are looking up?

Not necessarily. The PAD have already stated their case by demanding Somchai brings back Thaksin. The PAD surely know full well that Thaksin's brother in law will never bring him back. Likewise, the symbolic significance of appointing Thaksin's brother in law lends crEdence to the theory that the whole ongoing saga is a war of attrition between Thaksin Shiniwat and old elitists such as Privy Councillor General Prem.

It doesn't matter how many times you swallow the same remedy, if the diagnoses is wrong, you still get sick. Somchai Wongsawat is a capable PM, but he - like Samak - will be unable to achieve much as the warring factions - some visible, some not - continue to fight.

Politics is exhausting me. I think I'll return to my teacher's diary.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Teacher's Diary: day three

It's been pelting down with rain since yesterday evening and I know this bodes ill for the day. Sure enough, I miss my pick up and end up paying for a taxi who cannot drop me off inside school, so I have to brave the jam-packed, mud spattered road in. To make things worse, today is the day I have 'early morning study'. EMS is, in theory, the system where the school take the low-scoring students and give them an extra period with the teacher (me) before morning assembly. For reasons I could never ascertain, it never works out that way. Instead, I get several mid-table students sat around the library table looking thoroughly ticked off at having their breakfast interrupted. I feel the same way, and the torrential rain just adds to the gloom.

I'm not going to compound their misery by working them, instead we have a light hearted chat for twenty minutes then I send them on their way. The whole day has an air of dullness thanks to the rain, but I'm boosted by the big win for England last night and the cool breeze coming down the corridor. My first class goes quite well until I notice one girl has a Nazi insignia on her bag. This isn't so unusual in Thailand as the kids normally see it as a sign or rebellion without understanding what it really means. I explain to Minnie - the girl in question - that in my opinion, I would really like to see her find a different symbol to decorate her bag with. I try to teach a little about the Nazi policy towards other races without sounding pedantic, and I think she gets my drift. Later, another teacher happens to mention he also noticed the Nazi sign today but choose not to talk to Minnie about it. I'm not sure who made the better decision.

The rest of the day goes by uneventfully. My grade ten class cannot settle down though. We've got an exam in less than two weeks and we are well behind on the curriculum. If they want to get a good exam score, we need to buckle down, and they are just not doing it.

On the way home I get a cab again. A student going the same way asks to jump in. I'm normally shy about sharing cabs with people but as he's a student, I let him jump in. The boy in question is a half Thai, half Indian student from grade ten. I don't teach him but I've noticed him around, in fact it's hard to miss him as he is very loud. His name is Seb and he tells me he has to get three buses home every day. "Why?" I ask him.

"Because I live so far away" he says.

"So why do you study here?" I ask.

"I've been expelled from so many schools" he tells me in perfect English.

It turns out that Seb is a troubled soul. He tells me about his problems with drugs and his fights with teachers. He drew blood on one teacher and was expelled from that school. He goes on to tell me he realised what he was doing to his life and is trying hard to put himself back on track. He even visited his old school to apologise to the teacher.

I've been around teenagers long enough to tell when they are embellishing their tales and I don't believe that Seb is doing so. His manner and eyes tell me he is being honest. I'm quite pleased that I had this conversation with Seb, and I can see he appreciates the ride. I'll bet that Seb is a difficult lad to teach as he's very cocky and over confident, but he's good natured and I hope he can get his problems sorted out. Still glad I don't have to teach him, though.

One thing that strikes me is that - with the possible exception of temple schools or vocational schools - students like Seb are rare. In all my time of dealing with teenagers, I've never had a physical conflict or any kind of weapon or substance worse than cigarettes to deal with. The only student ever to raise their fist to me was a girl! That's not to say they are all angels, but compared to England where assaults on teachers are at a record high, and discipline is a huge problem, we have it easy in Thailand.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Teacher's Diary: day two

The first class is grade nine class 'D', the same class I taught the Vietnam War to yesterday. So yes, today the topic is the Asian financial crisis.

I want to get across the concept of 'national reserves' by drawing a pile of money in a safe on the whiteboard. Problem is, my drawings are utterly retarded. I get the class artist to draw the pile of money. Unfortunately, he's being a perfectionist about it and taking his time. I explain he just needs to do a quick sketch but he's being stubborn and I can't get the kids to focus on me while he's drawing. We're ten minutes into class and I haven't started.

Once we get going though, the kids do great, even better than yesterday. These lot are so bright, some of them can even name the Thai prime ministers during the crisis years. Teachers are usually quick enough to tell students when they are not performing, so I make a point of telling them how well they did today. The next class will be a very different affair though, that's for sure.

Class 'A' were almost unanimously voted the most, ahem, 'difficult' class last year and this year is not much better. In the early days it was open hostility between this class and I, but it's a little better now. I've come to realise that most of these students are not obnoxious - though a few are - they are just very weak. There are actually some bright personalities but they simply cannot focus. And so it is today, as I teach my same 'Vietnam War' lesson as I did with class 'D' yesterday. I spend more time telling them to listen than actually teaching. A measure of my success could be my final question when I ask: "Who won the Vietnam War?" and a student answers: "Japan".

One boy is purposely giving me a hard time by cracking pointless jokes as I go along. He's not being humorous, he's purposely being disruptive and showing off to his mates. I'm going to let it slide now but next week he'll be sitting alone and if he is still a problem, he'll sit outside.

Next period is a free. The Science teachers are excited about the 'big bang' experiment, and I've been meaning to sit down with a fellow Social Studies teacher - a devout Christian - and get into a debate on infinite regress, but that can wait.

I then have grade ten Social Science. In fact, the grade ten curriculum is called 'Social Science' but in reality it is 'Earth Science', a fact which I didn't know when I agreed to take the class. I'm no earth scientist, but I get by. On the plus side, grade ten students are generally far more mature than grade nine and the class size is smaller. Some of these guys have known me for a while now and mostly seem to like me, so the lessons are relaxed affairs. Today we are doing a case study on deforestation in Indonesia. I keep it basic as - despite their age - a lot of these students are very weak with their English. The oldest girl in the class is eighteen, the oldest boy is seventeen, both struggle to speak English. It's a shame because both are good natured students.

That's my classes done for the day, except for 'Drama club'. 'Drama Club' is one of those extra duties that teachers treat as anathema, but I got lucky with this one. My assigned class is a small group of the brightest girls in grade ten. We are preparing a spoof performance of 'Finding Nemo' and to encourage the use of English, we have introduced a system of fining the girls one baht every time they speak Thai. At the end of the year we will use the money to buy a large take away meal to celebrate the performance. So far we only have about thirty baht so either myself and the other teacher - a Hungarian who speaks better English than I do - will have to subsidise, or we will have to order the world's smallest pizza.

The class goes well as usual but the noise from next door is deafening. In fact, this is a real problem in the school. There is always noise from somewhere, be it drum beats, singing, shouting or a teacher with a microphone. It's difficult for any teacher but for teachers speaking a foreign language, it's especially tough.

Still, overall it's been a successful day - two hits, one 'so so' and one miss. Tomorrow I'll aim for three 'hits'.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Teacher's Diary

This diary is inspired by the Teacher's Diary that appeared in one of my favourite magazines, Private Eye.

I thought it would be interesting to see what differences and similarities exist in 'day to day' work for teachers in the UK and Thailand.

I'll try this for a week or so and see how it turns out. I immediately wish to state that I enjoy my work and life in Thailand very much and teaching is a positive and rewarding job at many times. As this diary is focusing on everyday events, the grumbles and moans that will no doubt be apparent don't represent my overall mood at work, which, again, is very positive.

Today, Weds 9th September

This is my quietest day as I have only two periods. The first is a reading and writing class in grade eight. This class causes a lot of problems for other teachers yet always seems to work fine with me as long as I'm quite stern with them. Perhaps it's because two of the nosiest students in the class seem to have taken a shine to me. It's often the case that if the most confident students are on your side, the rest of the class will come round.

Today though, these guys - all aged from twelve to fourteen - are deathly quiet. Quieter than I've ever known them. I pre-teach some vocabulary such as "physical therapy" and "pressure". I'm not on red hot form myself but this is still pretty easy stuff and they seem lost. I get into compound nouns and assign some textbook questions which they finish easily but still there is the unnatural silence. Still, they learned something. At the end of class the teacher in next classroom reports that his kids were also bizarrely silent. It's possible that grade eight had a mass scolding from one of the senior teachers in the morning.

In my free period I sit in the staff room and read. Kim - our upper grades PE teacher - comes in with a student who is clearly in trouble. Kim hands the student over to the year head and informs her that the student called him a "fat idiot". There is a long discussion between student and year head in Thai by which I can make out the student is protesting his innocence, but I don't believe him. The student is question is actually a boy who wears make up and a bra to school. Kim feels the student gets away with a lot of things because he is this way, and I think he may have a point.

Next period is also free. I try to debate with the Science teacher about alternative fuels. He swears blind that nuclear power is not an option because we only have enough uranium for one hundred years. I dispute this, but he is having none of it.

My boss interrupts to hand me a copy of the grade nine Social Studies exam paper that students are set to take in two weeks. Our school is actually a sub-branch of a bigger school (from now on I'll call it the 'head school'). All our teachers must write exam papers for every subject and then send them to 'head school', who then decide how many of our questions to use and how many of their own to use. The official policy is: "they decide which is better, theirs or ours". Anybody who works in Thailand knows what this statement really means.

Naturally the exam is about ninety percent head school's, and ten percent mine. This wouldn't be so bad if the Social Studies teacher at head school could write in English, but instead I have questions like: "Which is the first king that is first Chakri Dynasty?" and "What is the worst demonstration event occurred in 1992?". Complaining is futile, we are not even allowed to speak to our peers at head school. I count a total of twenty one errors in the exam, then I hand it back.

Period four is grade nine Social Studies. This class is one of my favourites. They take a while to settle down but when they do, they work well. Today we are studying the Vietnam War. It's a good lesson because the students grasp the basic concepts of what happened and the anecdotes of the Thai military in the jungle quite well. This group is good at English, so they understand the concepts when I explain them. Some of the other classes have bright students but with poor English skills, which makes it very hard to inspire an interest in history. The lesson goes well but next week I have to explain the Asian Financial Crises, which will be harder to make interesting.

And so my day is done. Tomorrow is a longer day though.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Thailand twenty years from now

It looks like my friend Tom was correct. Tom is a neighbour of mine (he owns several properties) who likes to practise his English. He's a good guy who likes to help people and is more sensitive than he lets on. But one thing about Tom is that he is rich, and like most rich Thais, he likes to let me know about it. He will often playfully invite me to invest in a Sweensens franchise or some new business venture with him, because he knows I can't afford it. He also likes to jibe me about political figures, especially ones he knows I dislike.

I recall one day when I visited him and he was talking on the phone as I entered. He was talking to the controversial son of a well known politician. When he finished the conversation he smiled and told me: "Don't worry, I didn't tell him what you said about him on your blog".

Tom is a sharp guy and often tells me about business news before it happens. A few months back he told me he was ordering several large sacks of rice (the most expensive brand of course) to his 'upcountry' home. I asked him why and he told me: "There will be a civil war in Thailand soon for sure, I want to be ready". At first I thought it was another one of his jokes but it wasn't, he was serious.

He isn't the only hi-so person to suggest this to me either.

Could things really get that bad? Even if war is a bit of a melodramatic prediction, what does the next ten or twenty years hold for Thailand?

It makes me nervous to think about it. If Sondhi and his mob are successful, Thailand will move backwards in democratic terms by having far more appointed roles in the Parliament. That may restore stability to the country but at what cost? It's almost unheard of for a country to move backwards democratically and forward academically, economically or in terms of social freedoms.

Of course, there is a strong chance that this will not happen and Samak will ride the storm and PPP will continue to form the government.But opponents of Thaksin and Samak will remain vigilant and continue to apply pressure. Many of these alleged opponents - such as Prem - are elderly and in the final chapter of their lives but will stability ensue when the next generation of Thailand's elite take their place? Thais don't talk about this much but - according to Tom - there could be more problems ahead and with our senior statesmen gone, who will provide the stability?

Thais seem unwilling or unable to discuss this. Why is this? Perhaps a clue lies in the sort of behaviour we see from many of the protesters on either side of the ongoing conflict. Each day, the Thai and international press are showing us adults - from young men to elderly women - behaving like thirteen year old boys. They want to look tough so they carry weapons they have no idea how to use, they would be unable to use anyway and even if they did know how to use them, they would be of little help against trained and armed police or soldiers. In reality, the long planks of wood, the sticks, baseball bats and knives are almost entirely to pose for pictures with. Yet while these people strut around looking for attention - and student groups want to get in on the act too, now (they want to miss class, let them!) - problems continue to mount.

I fear that if we ignore our worries or problems then things are doomed to repeat themselves in an endless cycle of tender democracy punctured by conflict and coups, only in future the could become even more damaging. I just hope that this we can solve these problems before they happen. If we don't, I fear my friend Tom's prediction could come true.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Students being students

Part of student life is finding an identity for yourself and giving yourself a reason to exist. For some (like me) that can mean attaching yourself to a certain type of music culture. For others it can mean finding a cause to support, often a perceived moral cause so you can imagine you have some high ground. This is a natural stage that we all go through and in any country, student politics can be a powerful and important movement.

That said, the latest student protests in Thailand have a farcical ring to them.

A look at the photos on the home page of The Nation tells the story. In the last week we've seen student group after student group melodramatically protesting the state of emergency, comments by the education minister and now a wave of protests calling for Samak to resign. This bandwagon has been jumped on now only because the international media are watching and Samak is under pressure. The students have decided they want some attention now, but when the PAD protests first began, the student response was minimal. The student shootings were tragic, but the wave had begun just before this happened.

What's more, inviting school children up on stage to tell Samak to resign seems in bad taste.

Here's one more thought: if you were a person of influence watching the events in Bangkok, what would you tell the people? If you supported democracy you could tell the PAD they were wrong and things should be resolved peacefully. If you were neutral, you could say the same thing. But what if you supported the PAD, but could not be seen to be condoning their actions? I guess you'd have to stay quiet.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Vindication of the stripes

I don't get a huge amount of interview requests - which is hardly surprising since I'm not a journalist or a celebrity - but the occasional offer does come up. This weekend though, I got two requests on the same day, which is a first. One was for an Australian radio station (via an old colleague) and the other was for a very well known international TV station.

To make the coincidences even more pleasant, both requests dropped in on the day that my 2007 prognostications of the fortunes of Mr Thaksin and Manchester City were more or less vindicated. When Thaksin first bought out MCFC, my article was plugged on the front page of 'The Nation'. Amongst the rebuttals came a bash from Matt Crook - probably the most popular blogger in Thailand at the time - who said it "makes perfect sense" for Thaksin to buy City. It didn't. It was a purely political move, and the decision to sell now is not related to the assets freeze - that happened before the purchase - but is in fact a face-saving gesture to avoid failing the "fit and proper person" test required by the FA for all majority shareholders.

Thaksin was never keen or knowledgeable about football. He once said he wanted the City fans "to treat me as one of them". Well Mr Thaksin, you failed that test, too. Fans never walk out on their club.

Back to Bangkok and the ongoing mess. I said recently that the scene was "eerily reminiscent of May 1992". Bangkok Pundit responded - I'm not sure if it was to me or someone else - by pointing out the lack of fatalities in the ongoing protests. In fact, when I said the new events were "reminiscent", I meant more in atmosphere than in violence. But of course, today saw the first fatality. I hope it is the last, but I fear not.