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Chula vote shows students’ liberal side

May 06. 2017
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WHEN HE announced last year that he had made it into Chulalongkorn University, a perceived conservative and elite institution, anti-establishment student activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal was warned sternly by friends and foes alike that he would be ostracised and isolated.

Such a reactionary institution simply had no place for an upstart like him, observers said – but Chula proved the doubters wrong. 

Not only has the controversial freshman walked the red carpet after fellow students voted to nominate him as “the Star of the Faculty of Political Science”, but next semester he will lead the Student Council of Chulalongkorn University (SCCU) after winning votes from council members who had been elected by students from across the university.

So while outsiders might well hold one view towards Chula and its students, some students sitting on the council told The Nation that Netiwit’s position and role in the university proved emphatically that students today had grown internally progressive and were all-obedient no more, despite the superficial indifference.

Junior-year arts student and a member of SCCU, Wasinee Pabuprapap, said that the students’ choice in electing representatives to sit on the council clearly reflected the change in their attitude.

“Chula has this image of being establishmentarian but really the students are diverse in their thoughts,” she said. Representatives elected by students from each faculty to sit on the council had their own ideas and showed progressive ideology, Wasinee added, “so I guess the students have really changed”.

Wasinee said that in recent years, the students had tried to bring about change in several agendas such as the issue of uniforms, activities, ceremonies, and new-student orientation. But they had not come to fruition due more to the university’s superstructure, she explained.

“We had voted in the council and agreed to issue a statement, to act on some important issues such as on the strict rules over the uniform at the Faculty of Engineering last year, but the professors stopped us.”

Voting for Netiwit to steer the council this year, Wasinee said she expected the young activist to bring about the change Chula students wanted to see in their university.

Tanawat Wongchai, a freshman in the Faculty of Economics and a member of the council, shared similar ideas about the changes and rejected criticism that the council did not reflect the students’ voice.

“We’ve been voted by fellow students to work here. Although in some faculties there was no competition among candidates, students still had to vote whether or not to approve us to sit on the council and represent their interests,” Tanawat said.

“As for myself, I had no competitors. But I was well received by students and gained more than 300 votes. Fewer than 20 students voted against,” he explained.

What’s more, even in rather conservative faculties such as Fine Arts and Engineering where competition was more intense, the winners this year were of the liberal type, the economics student said.

Like Wasinee, Tanawat trusted the council’s president-elect Netiwit, whom he had befriended since high school before Chula, to make a difference, although he conceded that his task would still be difficult.

“The Student Government of Chulalongkorn University (SGCU) could have more power in framing the policies. But at least having a strong council can balance the students’ club and make known that there is also strong liberal force in this university,” Tanawat said.

Many Netiwit opponents expressed similar views about the responsibility and authority of the SCCU and the SGCU. So when Netiwit announced his aim to reverse some traditions, people said that was not for the student council to say.

But former SCCU president Siwhat Sudadech, a science graduate-to-be, said the president and members of the student council had the capacity to shape policies, as long as they were appropriate. “They can make proposals in the meeting. If the meeting approves it, the policies can then be passed to the executives.”

Whether or not the head of the SGCU had more authority in bringing about change, Siwhat insisted that heads of both the government and the council had similar authority and capability. Eventually, all the agendas had to pass the council as this was the checks and balances system, the former SCCU president said.

Although Netiwit’s position and role remained highly controversial, Professor Charas Suwanmala, a Chula political science alumnus, said people should give him an opportunity to work on the council regardless of his political stance. In the old days when he was a student, his group led by Anek Laothamatas faced similar opposition but time had proved the movement had merit for the country.

While saying Netiwit should not be pre-judged, the professor emphasised that duty comes with responsibility.

Charas believed the young activist could come to understand his role and realise he could not act arbitrarily.

As for the concerns of some alumni, the professor said they might have worries but that does not mean they can limit people’s freedom, especially in universities.


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