11 July 2024

A set of new children’s books with political messages has triggered heated debate over allegations they aim to “brainwash” young readers.

However, their main author and publisher have defended the content of the books, insisting it contains no threat or malice towards children.

“They were all created with good intentions to expand the horizon of Thai pictorial books,” said Srisamorn Soffer, who wrote poems for most of the eight books in the set and led the production team.

The Consumer Protection Board recently summoned the administrators of the Facebook page that offers the “Waad Wang” (Drawing Hopes) books for sale to meet its officials on October 12 in response to a complaint that they violated the law on direct selling.

Out of the box

Released late last month, the eight-book “Waad Wang” set is priced at Bt700. The books – seven of them in a drawings-and-poems format and the last one a comic book with no text – are “suitable for readers aged five to 112 years old”, according to the ad, in an apparent jibe at Article 112 of the Criminal Code on lèse-majesté.

Of the 3,000 book sets published, 2,500 were made available for sale and the rest distributed for free. The books were sold out shortly after their launch, according to the publishers.

Not all books in the set are controversial, but Srisamorn admits that some “may have content that coincides with the political situation over the past year”.

The author said: “Over the past year, our country has seen much fury, anger and hopelessness – myself included. A lot of situations made us angry and hopeless, thinking of what to do next.”

However, she rejected allegations that the books distort facts and could “poison” the minds of young readers. “I am a mother myself, as well as a teacher and writer of children’s books,” she told The Opener news website on September 30.

Explaining her inspiration, the author said she wanted to “think out of the box” and write children’s books that go beyond the traditional theme of “being good children who listen to elders, show gratitude, and help with household chores”.

(Photo by “Waad Wang” Facebook page)

The eight books

Writing under the pen name “Song Kha”, Srisamorn wrote poems for six of the books, including one for which actress-turned-activist Intira “Sine” Jaroenpura provided prose. Anti-government protest leader Sombat Bunngam-anong contributed text for the seventh book, while an artist who goes by the pseudonym The Art District 86 illustrated the last book.

The books by “Song Kha” comprise “Chit Phumisak”, which focuses on the life of the late communist revolutionary described as the “Che Guevara of Thailand” who was an author, historian and poet; “The Adventure of Little Duck” about a yellow duckling in search of democracy; “Children Have Dreams” involving the hopes and dreams of both children and adults; “The Call of the Birds” about birds in captivity pining for freedom; and “Who Has No Head?”, which uses the Thai alphabet to tackle the issue of bullying. The latter won an award from the Foundation for Children about 10 years ago, according to Srisamorn.

In “Mom, Where Are You Going?”, Intira pictures her work and activism through the eyes of her pet cat Mim. Meanwhile, Sombat’s “Hack! Hack! The Fire Dragon” highlights the issue of wildfires destroying precious natural habitats.

The comic book “10 Citizens” by The Art District 86 celebrates anti-establishment protest leaders including Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul and Panupong “Mike” Jadnok.

Clash of views

Conservative commentators have lashed out at the political overtones in the children’s books.

Arnond Sakworawich, a lecturer at the National Institute of Development Administration, wrote on Facebook: “The [books] were produced to brainwash children and turn them into zombies from a young age. Are the government and the Education Ministry aware of this?”

Senator Somchai Sawangkarn called on the authorities to investigate whether the books’ content constitutes sedition. “Inciting resistance, cultivating ideas, brainwashing. Comic books are being used to dominate children’s thoughts. This is really dangerous,” he said.

The criticism prompted Deputy Education Minister Khunying Kalaya Sophonpanich to order a probe into whether the publications contain misinformation that “could cause misunderstanding among children if they lack correct advice from teachers or guardians”, said her spokesperson, adding legal action would follow if wrongdoing was found to have been committed.

Kalaya’s move was, in turn, condemned by many critics as a bid to restrict children’s scope of learning.

Thicha Nanakorn, a feminist and children’s rights activist, launched a petition campaign at Change.org protesting the Education Ministry’s “blocking Thai children’s chance of learning” through these books. The campaign had more than 2,700 supporters as of Sunday (October 3).

Angkhana Neelapaijit, a former member of the National Human Rights Commission, urged the government and the deputy education minister to be open-minded and accept diverse opinions, instead of “trying to limit information and hide truths in society”.

Government textbooks used in schools have long been accused of promoting a narrow and conservative view of Thailand’s history and society, one which prioritizes children’s obedience over knowledge.

(Photo by “Waad Wang” Facebook page)

‘Political propaganda’

The use of children’s books to spread political messages or push political beliefs has been around for centuries. American and European scholars point to “political propaganda” in children’s books available during the French Revolution in the late 18th century.

More recently, children’s books celebrating Donald Trump have “omitted facts, glossed over context, and ignored opposing perspectives”, according to critics of the controversial former US president.

Critics of such books condemn what they call manipulation of children’s cognitive development and knowledge via political propaganda.

In 2014, veteran Thai politician Suthep Thaugsuban penned a cartoon version of his life story. The book is about “A man who fights with his heart and bare hands for reform of Thai politics”, declares the cover blurb.

Inside, Suthep recounts the story from his rural childhood and study in the United States to his political ups and downs, and his role as a key leader of the “massive people’s movement” against a controversial amnesty bill pushed by the Pheu Thai-led government in 2013.

Over in Hong Kong, dissidents last year distributed satirical children’s books featuring wolf and sheep characters. Authorities viewed the content as subversive and in July arrested five publishers on sedition charges. Hong Kong police said the books aimed to incite hatred towards the city’s government amongst youngsters. They claimed the information inside the books “turns children’s minds and develops a moral standard to be against society”.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk