As Teachers Unions And Mexican Government Fight, Children Left Behind

Police forces and teachers protesting in Mexico City
Police forces and teachers protesting in Mexico City
Luis Rubio


MEXICO CITY â€" The Mexican government's bid to reform the country's underperforming public education sector is failing. On the one hand, there’s determination to push through reforms many say may not be practical. On the other, there’s fierce opposition from teachers who fear losing their jobs.

In this tragic farce, the most important thing has been overlooked: giving Mexican children an opportunity to shape their own future. Education is not only important to improve Mexico’s economic growth, it’s also crucial for the full development of citizens.

The current educational system has been built solely to ensure the continued hegemony of trade unions. Since the 1920s, unions have monopolized the education sector, not with the aim of giving students equal opportunity to good schools, but in order to have political control.

The actions of the National Coordinator of Education Workers â€" or CNTE, the more radical of the two main teachers unions â€" in recent months follow the sort of martial strategy philosopher Sun Tzu might propose: Strike your enemy where it hurts the most and where he least expects it.

The CNTE emerged from a split in Mexico’s main union, the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) but soon began to pursue the same goals as the group they left, albeit by different means. Both unions were complementary to each other, often playing a good cop/bad cop routine in discussions with the government. The SNTE often blackmailed the administration, citing the threat of CNTE, and both unions won some concession when either group confronted the government.

The arrest in 2013 of SNTE's powerful â€" and wealthy â€" chief, Elba Esther Gordillo, could not have happened at a worse time. While the government feared Gordillo’s opposition to reforms, decapitating SNTE turned the CNTE into a powerful stakeholder in negotiations about the education sector.

CNTE became particularly influential in the central Mexican state of Oaxaca, where control of the educational authority allowed it to extort large sums of money from the federal government. The administration has now cut off that source of power but the union remains strong because many Oaxaca teachers support it.

While many teachers take part in marches and road blocks because the union forces them to do so, many others do it out of conviction. Why? Teachers are afraid of losing their jobs because the reforms call for evaluation tests that they may fail.

In addition to the power of the unions, the education system itself is flawed. Usually, anyone who wants to be a teacher has to gather a small fortune to buy a place, which is, in effect, a kind of savings that is cashed in when the teacher retires and can sell it to someone else. Moreover, a teaching position ensures the teacher an income for life. Both the CNTE and SNTE want to keep this arrangement as it allows them to control union members.

The current education reforms want to redefine the relationship between unions and the education ministry as the basis for more far-reaching reforms down the line in the sector. In that sense, it is all stick and no carrot because it offers nothing to those expected to abandon their lifelong economic security, which the traditional system ensured. People who bought their teaching posts years ago are seeing their retirement threatened, and those who suspect they may not be good teachers fear failing the evaluation tests and losing their jobs. The reforms offer no proposals to placate these fears.

Politicians themselves are undermining these reforms by bickering about presidential succession. As officials insist on fully implementing these reforms that critics say are unfeasible, opportunistic politicians are eyeing the possibility of tailoring these reforms in order to brighten their own electoral prospects.

The government has been clumsy handling the concerns of union members and teachers and this attitude has further fueled protests. It’s possible now that protests against reforms will spread beyond education to other sectors.

As for schoolchildren, does anyone care what happens to them?

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

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.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"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.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

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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