By Andrew Biggs
There is nothing particularly outstanding about the tiny rural school of Wat Ban Pathong Tha Noen Samakee, 360 kilometres north-east of Bangkok.
It is just off the main highway that runs all the way up through the North-East of Thailand. While it is located in Nakhon Ratchasima province, on a map it appears closer to Khon Kaen. This is the heart of rural Thailand.
The school is a collection of wooden and concrete classrooms. The front boasts a faded pink concrete wall, behind which is an equally faded playground of slides and swings.
It has only 83 students. That is a tiny handful by Thai school standards, where schools can carry as many as 3,000 students. It is hardly on the A-list of choices for school directors, that top position in every government school that all administrators aspire to. Thus when the school director of Wat Ban Pathong Tha Noen Samakee retired in September last year, nobody was clamoring to fill his shoes.
The civil servants, whose job it is to find such a school director in this educational zone, work for what is known as Primary Education Area 6. For the sake of brevity, we’ll call it Primary Education 6.
It is probably not far from the truth to say they were scraping the barrel when it came to candidates. But that is no excuse for what they did, which ultimately propelled them, and this little rural school, into the national media spotlight this week.
In November last year a new school director arrived by the name of Nathapop Boonthongtho, 51, an overweight fellow with a ruddy face. But he didn’t just start a new job three months ago — he also started a not-so-clandestine affair with a Year 8 girl in his very own school.
The two apparently hung out together in public places. They sent each other cute Line text messages, which went viral this week. Nathapop promised to marry her on February 14, Valentine’s Day, something I am guessing every Year 7 girl wishes to hear a man say. But let us not skirt the issue. This was not love. This was textbook pedophilia.
It all blew up this week and both director Nathapop and the girl have done a runner, apparently in different directions. Primary Office 6 has announced that Nathapop may – just may – have criminal charges leveled against him. Worse, he may be sacked from the civil service. One normally has to bludgeon an entire village to death before one is sacked from the Thai civil service. The normal punishment for pedophilia, corruption, rape and murder while on civil service duty is to be shunted to what they call an “inactive post”. Heaven forbid otherwise; they may lose their social and retirement benefits.
All this covers up the real story. It’s not just Nathapop who should be jailed. Every single one of those Primary Office 6 civil servants should be locked up with him and, in a perfect world, have the key thrown away.
That’s because Nathapop only made it to this tiny rural school because he was booted out of his old one, thanks to a clandestine affair he was having with a student there. The only difference was this wasn’t a Year 8 girl – the last one was in Year 6.
He only escaped conviction because he transferred 200,000 baht to the family of the girl in question then quickly left the school.
His old school is just 28 km from the new one. I would hazard a guess that news travels fast, and when the school committee and locals heard that a known pedophile was about to be their school director, they protested.
They wrote a letter to Primary Office 6, which chose to ignore it. They were, after all, the ones who decided to send him there. Nathapop came, so to speak, and the rest is history.
It is difficult to remain cool, calm and collected when faced with such facts. One doesn’t know quite how to act when government officials responsible for the education of youth shunt a pedophile from school to school, hoping his raging sexual perversity will somehow go away. On the contrary. Nothing is better for a pedophile than new territory.
Few books in recent years have moved me as much as Betrayal did. It is a book about the Boston Globe newspaper’s investigation into the network of pedophile priests within the Catholic Church in the USA at the turn of the millennium. You may know it as the movie Spotlight, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2016. While the movie is very good, nothing prepares you for the book’s detailed accounts of systematic molestation that was swept under the table for decades by the Catholic Church.
Its message was that the only thing worse than pedophilia is a system that protects it. The Catholic Church knowingly took steps to cover up its rampant pedophilia, the very worst being the Vatican itself, recalling cardinals who oversaw the suppression of child molestation back to the fold to be given obscure roles in Vatican City. The church was effectively closing its wings around these wrongdoers. If only the church had done the same to its child victims.
Well-known pedophile priests were shunted from diocese to diocese, while victims who dared to make waves had the full weight of the church hover precariously over their heads. Some priests were sent to special centers set up to “cure” them of their desires, and the fact the church had such centers tells you enough about how rampant the problem was.
The Catholic Church is not such a main player here in Thailand, where Buddhism is the preferred choice of spiritual comfort. But look at the similarities in the two events. I read the story from Nakhon Ratchasima this week and the ghosts of that Betrayal book start hovering around me.
If you have a moment, go take a look at Natthapop’s Facebook page. There are pictures of him dressed in his full civil service regalia. It makes you want to raise your hands and >>wai<< him out of respect. His main picture has the words: “Nattapop Loves the King.” In another picture, he professes his love for his mother. This is a man who ticks all the boxes of Thai respectability which, ironically, opens the door for him to satiate his lust for schoolgirls.
This column does not set out to attack Nathapop himself. He’s a sick man who requires punishment along with some form of medical or psychiatric attention. I think we can all agree he needs to be kept as far away from children as possible, right?
Well, maybe not everybody. Primary Office 6 knew about the scandal at the old school. It seems having an affair with a Year 6 girl, who would be aged around 12 years, is not enough to warrant your sacking. What they did, instead, was move him from one school to another.
We can at least be thankful a committee has been set up to examine all this. And who is investigating this gross miscarriage of justice and dereliction of duty?
It’s the Primary Office 6 itself. And boy have they taken some really strong punitive steps.
They have “moved him to an inactive post within the Primary Education Service.” As of tomorrow he must rock up to Primary Education 6 to continue his career working with children.
(Writer’s Note: In August, 2018, eight months after this story was published, Nattapop was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years’ jail. He was sacked from the civil service with no benefits. Photo courtesy of The Nation)