Governments around the world â€" democracies and dictatorships alike â€" often change school textbooks and courses to fit their own agendas. From US history to Syrian schoolchildren, here are some textbook controversies in the news recently:
EGYPT: TEXTBOOK REVOLUTION
Egyptian news site Mada Masr reports that the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the 2011 revolution are posing problems for the countryâ€™s educational system. The new education minister is leading a push to delete all mentions of violence from school textbooks, with the stated goal of combating extremism. But the move resulted in the removal of several chapters on the battles of early Islamic history, angering Islamist parties and many ordinary Egyptians who accuse the government of undermining Egypt's national identity. The textbooks include brief descriptions of the 2011 and 2013 revolutions, but do not significantly change the content on former President Hosni Mubarakâ€™s 30 years in power.
Muslim students take Koran lessons in makeshift school in Cairo â€" John Wreford/ZUMA
One of Chinaâ€™s most popular history textbooks for high schoolers has been criticized for its overly nationalist tone. The book eliminates the historical context surrounding events such as World War II and the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, portraying them instead solely as nationalist struggles against â€œhumiliationâ€ from outsiders. The new book also downplays Mao Zedongâ€™s role in the deaths of millions during the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward and includes inflammatory language towards Chinaâ€™s neighbors, calling wartime Japanese soldiers â€œinhumane beasts.â€
â€‹The new curriculum for the Advanced Placement (AP) exam in United States History has been harshly criticized by conservatives. The Washington Post. reports that the new text gives lower priority to the idea of â€œAmerican exceptionalismâ€ and more to some of the darker sides of American history, such as slavery. The controversy caused several states, most notably Oklahoma, to propose legislation against the course, writes news site Politico. But College Board, the organization that runs the Advanced Placement program, argues that the curriculum is a â€œframework,â€ not a syllabus set in stone, and that it is up to individual teachers to design lesson plans around the material.
JAPAN: DILUTING HISTORY
Japanâ€™s new history textbooks have provoked a backlash from its East Asian neighbors, reports the Tokyo-based daily Japan Times. The new textbooks, slated to be distributed by April 2016, include more references to Japanâ€™s sovereignty over islands disputed with China and South Korea. The revisions also include changes in wording that diminish the Japanese governmentâ€™s role in a number of controversial historical events, including the confiscation of native lands during the conquest of Hokkaido, the mass suicides of locals during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, and the forced prostitution of Korean â€œcomfort womenâ€ during World War II.
In the rebel-held province of Idlib in Syria, two parallel educational systems are taking root as the al-Qaeda-aligned al-Nusra front and the internationally recognized Syrian National Coalition (SNC) are establishing their own schools with different curricula, writes the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. While the two groups are allied on the battlefield in the struggle against the Assad regime, students are forced to choose between the two when it comes to education. While al-Nusraâ€™s schools focus more on mathematics and Koranic studies, the SNCâ€™s system is based on the old government curriculum except for the pro-regime â€œnational educationâ€ classes, which have been removed.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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