Today is no day for guns

While pictures of five-year-old Prince George, the son of Prince William and Kate Middleton, playing with a pretend gun stirred public debate in Britain last June about whether a fascination with military hardware is damaging to little children, the majority of the Thai public has been at ease with something far more worrying for years.

On Children's Day every year, the military traditionally opens its barracks across the country to children, giving them a first-hand chance to play with real military weapons, even though they are not allowed to fire them. They are also allowed to climb on tanks and trucks and sit in the cockpit of army helicopters.

Today will be another Children's Day where weapons and heavy artillery, along with the violence they represent, are glorified to the nation's young and impressionable.

Many of these tanks and vehicles have roamed Bangkok streets over the past few days as they were moved from military bases in nearby provinces to the capital for their Children's Day shows.

The air force has also sponsored a jet fighting show at its Don Muang base even though a similar event held in Hat Yai, Songkhla, two years ago went terribly wrong when the jet crashed, killing its pilot. That horrifying incident occurred in front of the watching children and their parents.

Similarly, the navy also opens its warships to children and conducts demonstrations for them.

These traditional military exhibitions and shows have existed for years without formal complaints being made against them by parents or child protection agencies.

They have become default options for marking the day without ever being sufficiently questioned over their age appropriateness.

Exposing young children to such experiences could instil a fascination with military weapons and inculcate them into a culture of violence and militarisation. In the case of the deadly jet fighter incident, it may also be a traumatic memory for them.

It is understandable that the army, navy and air force try to come up activities for the day like other government agencies. But they should keep the weapons and tanks away from the children.

If we ban images of alcoholic drinks or cigarettes from television shows or other media because we believe they are bad for children, we should do the same with military hardware.

These "traditional" practices emphasise military culture. This is not the right thing to do, especially given that Thai schools already adopt a military culture of obedience and order into their daily routines, such as the short-haircut code for boys.

Under the current military regime in particular, some schools and universities have further adopted such a culture by, for example, engaging soldiers to conduct discipline training for students.

Children's Day should be an occasion for children to enjoy fun activities that suit their age and interest, not a day for getting hands-on experience with deadly weapons. It should be a day that adults attentively listen to their voices and pay heed to their needs.

With gun violence prevalent in many countries, the world is experiencing a growing collective discomfort over children's exposure to a culture of violence including movies which feature gun violence or even fake artillery.

Thailand, on the other hand, continues to encourage children to play with real military weapons while overlooking the culture of violence they represent.

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