A plan proposed by Thailand’s ultra-conservative Senate to set up a so-called “virtuous council” to oversee matters related to morality has raised concerns that it will amount to little more than another effort to inculcate young Thais with outdated mores such as unquestioning obedience.
The idea of the council was proposed by one of the country’s 250 unelected senators in the upper house of the National Assembly last week with the aim of “reforming the national culture to ensure its progress, discipline and morality,” according to a report.
“The bid for a virtuous council is intended for internal politics. It is the last gasp of a declining regime that seeks to reverse the tide of history,” Thana Boonlert, a journalist and political commentator, wrote in a commentary for the Bangkok Post on Sept. 6.
The virtuous council’s task could entail enforcing obedience to a code of a conservative code of ethics as defined by members of the council.
Its real aim would be to “monopolize” moral principles in line with the dominant national ideology,” argued Thana, who likened the idea to fascist-style attempts at indoctrination by a repressive military dictatorship in the 1950s.
“The problem is not about being good in itself but forcing others to accept what constitutes goodness. In fact, people define virtue differently and hold other sets of values,” the journalist said.
The Senate proposal was tabled by Sirina Pavarolarvidya, the chairperson of the body’s committee on ethics, for whom ethical behavior centers around “five moral principles — gratitude, discipline, honesty, sufficiency and a volunteer spirit — which are born out of the love for nation, religion, and king.”
The call for the virtuous council has come after a year of political upheaval with large numbers of young Thais in their teens and twenties taking to the streets regularly to demand sweeping reforms of what they see as the country’s ossified political structure, including the role of the monarchy as a sacrosanct institution above all criticism.
The young protesters have been calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who seized power in a coup by ousting an elected government in 2014.
More controversially, they have also been demanding that new constitutional limits be imposed on the country’s monarchy, with some going so far as to call for Thailand to become a republic.
The outspoken stance of the student-led demonstrators has shocked conservatives in a country where public education is still dominated by what critics see as reactionary curricula as well as a stance of expecting unquestioned obedience from students.
In Thailand any criticism of the country’s royals is against the law and carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison per count.
“The proposal for a one-size-fits-all morality is like a balm for those in power who are under threat from the pro-democracy movement,” Thana wrote.
Parallel with the Senate proposal, there have been attempts by the country’s Ministry of Education to introduce new course material for students to “fortify morals” among young Thais.
A new pilot project aimed at revamping educational materials in line with conservative values at Thai schools is expected to kick off in the coming weeks.
A campaign for instilling virtue in young Thais serves to provide legitimacy to a “regime that rose to power from a military coup in 2014. By refashioning itself into a bastion of virtue, it alienates those who hold different beliefs,” Thana said.
“The virtuous council is an expression of fantasy [by] those in power. The notion of virtuous leadership dates back to the concept of thammaracha, or a ruler who rules according to the dhamma or Buddhist teachings,” the commentator noted.
“Many political figures who have shaped our modern politics live up to this image [but] many politicians who have come under scrutiny for blatant misconduct, nepotism and corruption remain intact.”
The original version of this story was published in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.