The outcry surrounding the Khon Kaen deputy governor’s letter last month to launch a programme to “stop citizens from being stupid” has largely been placated, following public apologies.
However, the incident highlighted the deeply entrenched bias in Thailand’s rural-urban divide, the dire underdevelopment of education and social services in the rural Northeast, and the tragedy of very real cognitive deficiencies in Thailand’s children.
Labelling Northeastern villagers “stupid” is a common expression of prejudice and propagates the misconception that the rural population is naturally less intelligent than urbanites. These prejudices fail to recognise the circumstances which have held back the development of children, especially in the rural Northeast, where education, healthcare, social services, investment and infrastructure are among the most poorly supported in the entire country.
The Northeast’s plight is historical, with the majority of the population being ethnically Lao and speaking a form of Lao as their first language. Since the early 20th century, the Thai state has sought to consolidate its control over the Northeast through a programme of “Thai-ification”. The national school system, introduced in the 1920s, brought modernity but demanded teaching be conducted only in the Thai language. The consequences are that Isaan children do not have the opportunity to access basic learning in the early years in their mother tongue, resulting in “subtractive bilingualism” – poor Thai and Lao language skills.
The challenges of learning in a second language are well documented, and educational organisations such as Unesco campaign to promote mother-tongue education, to help children navigate the school environment, bridge learning at school with experiences from home, and fully engage children in the learning process. Otherwise, children struggle to understand their teachers, often fail to develop a strong foundation in literacy and numeracy, and feel marginalised by the education system. It is thus not surprising that Isaan children are near the bottom of O-NET tables.
Following its own successful pilot programme using Yawi in the deep South, the government should begin using children’s mother tongues as the medium of instruction in kindergarten and primary school, as a bridging language to teaching in Thai. This would promote “additive bilingualism” – good Thai and Lao language skills, as recommended by Asean and obviously beneficial for trans-boundary trade.
The challenge of learning in a second language is compounded by attending schools which are ill equipped. Rural schools find it extremely difficult to employ experienced teaching professionals, and these institutions all too often rely on young, inexperienced teachers who rarely remain at their posting for more than one academic year. Also, these inexperienced teachers are usually required to teach a full range of subjects, often delivering curriculum content they lack the qualifications for.
The intelligence quotient of students in rural areas is another concern which authorities should be urgently addressing. Research from 2012 revealed that the average IQ of Thailand’s urban schoolchildren was 89.1, while the average IQ of rural schoolchildren was 6 points lower, at 82.5. This urban-rural disparity is not evidence of the rural population’s “natural backwardness”, since in fact an individual’s IQ is greatly affected by their health, environment, education and cognitive stimulation during childhood.
Specifically, factors which impair Thai children’s IQ include disease, nutritional deficiencies, malnutrition, parasite infestation, deficiencies of iodine and iron, and inadequate cognitive stimulation during early childhood. Children born into poor rural families are far more likely to suffer these problems than their urban counterparts, whose families have easier access to nutrition, health services and other intelligence-boosters such as books and toys. This is well understood, and research by Thailand’s Rajanukul and Ramajitti Institutes indicates a direct link between children’s IQ and the economic status of their parents.
During early childhood, thousands of children in poor Thai rural communities experience inadequate resources for physical and mental development. Insufficient vitamin and iodine intake cause gross cognitive development disorders such as cretinism and can have a largely irreversible impact, ultimately affecting educational opportunity and future economic productivity, streaming children into a life of poverty. For instance, research in Khon Kaen reveals that childhood iodine deficiency disorder is still problematic, despite years of government campaigns, suggesting a need to enforce mandatory addition of iodine to rurally mined salt.
Then there are the very real impacts on rural children of corruption by government officials. Millions of baht assigned for poor families, for children at risk, and for children in hilltribe communities routinely disappear, with recent investigations suggesting embezzlement in excess of Bt100 million.
To end Thailand’s rural-urban divide, authorities need to act decisively. The task of improving healthcare, education, social services and early childhood provisions across rural communities requires an urgent commitment from a multi-agency taskforce to ensure children in these communities are not deprived of the right to begin school on equal terms with their urban peers. Education policies which enable children to use their mother tongue language in schools, as permitted in the 2008 national curriculum, are essential and should be encompassed in wider ranging education reforms which will give districts greater autonomy to provide an education which is meaningful, effective, and tailored to learners needs.
There is a systematic way forward – “ethno-development”, or ethnicity-specific policies. This approach is being championed by the National Economic and Social Development Board, responsible for Thailand’s five-year plans, which direct ministerial strategic goals. The Twelfth Plan, for 2017-2021, employed ethno-development for the first time. It announced specific policies to develop ethnic communities, for peace-building in the deep South, for ethnic tourism in the North, and to show sensitivity in progressing the Community Forestry Bill.
Ethno-development is not new to Thailand. For decades the Tribal Research Institute sought to understand and create policies for developing Thailand’s hilltribes. Devising specific policies to address the under-development of Thailand’s rural ethnic minorities can tackle problems like iodine deficiency disorder in the Thai Lao population at the community level. This will prioritise scare resources, address ethnic-specific health and development