History lessons required before the AEC forms

opinion December 01, 2014 01:00

By The Nation

Teaching kids the truth about the past would be good for all Asean states



For a long time, Thais believed the Loy Krathong festival was quite a unique national identity. Now, globalisation and regionalisation have all but changed the feeling of monopoly. 
Our neighbours have their own versions of Loy Krathong. Cambodia has Bon Om Touk as its biggest national festival and an occasion to express gratitude to the rivers. Some minorities in Myanmar mark the end of the Buddhist lent with their Thadingyut ceremony, during which candle-lit earth bowls, or sometimes monk bowls, are floated at night. 
And when Thailand’s northerners release illuminated lanterns into the night sky, many are doing the same across the Thai borders.
The cultural connections between Southeast Asian nations is not breaking news, but the greater regional integration due to happen under the Asean Economic Community (AEC) will most likely tell us that the ties are stronger than everyone thinks. 
At the Prambanan Hindu temple in Indonesia, the biggest Islamic nation, Ramayana carvings are everywhere in what is the largest Hindu religious structure in Indonesia. That shouldn’t be a surprise, though, as most Asean countries have one form of Ramayana or another. Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei all have Ramayana as a big part of their artistic or architectural elements. The rest of the region at least harbours some traces of the great epic.
The citizens of AEC, however, should brace themselves for some surprises in new political knowledge. Cultural claims can be disputed but settled amicably. However, differences in political histories will be harder to tackle. 
A big example is the dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over territorial claims. Nationalism can come into play and it often distorts political histories. And if there were such things as “honest political histories”, they are often played down when those who were at fault are in power.
There are three sides to every story – our side, their side and the truth. When AEC countries step up integration, claims and rebuttals concerning their painful past will most likely results in clashes. The new generations can get confused, while the old generations can get angry. At the end of the day, challenging history can’t be bad. True histories will always stand the test of time, while attempting to rewrite history always results in repeated scrutiny, and rightfully so.
When it comes to learning about history, Thais are cursed. The nation’s history, as taught in the classrooms at least, is flooded with white lies. Thai children grow up learning mostly feel-good parts of our nation’s history and can thus land on the wrong side of nationalism. 
How the country lost independence does not feature much in the curriculum but how we reclaimed it is repeated over and over inside and outside the classroom. Learning about history requires the most open of minds. While it goes without saying that Thais are not the only people half-blinded historically, we can only teach the ones in front of us – our children. 
The new generation of Thais must enter the AEC era best equipped for new historical knowledge. One-track minds will certainly lead to problems on issues such as the Thai-Cambodia conflicts or the Muslim agitation at the southern border.
Political and religious differences have defined borders. The AEC will bring down some of the old barriers but the staunchest ones will continue to hinder mutual understanding and sympathy. 
Economic cooperation will boost Asean but real trust will beg for more. After all, while humans can share a great many things, history is one of the hardest to have in common.