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Fight for human rights focuses on Thai university tradition

May 28. 2013
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By Titipol Phakdeewanich

As a new academic year begins for university students across Thailand, the ongoing problem of human rights violations on campus is once more being raised. For first-year students, this rite-of-passage should of course be their opportunity to feel welcomed
But it is a sad fact today that thousands of students are at this moment only too well aware of the very real possibility of being caught up in this year’s euphemistically entitled university tradition of rub-nong (“welcoming the newcomer”). Those who continue to defend its practices – which borrow from the historical British public school system, the more contemporary US university fraternity system, and Thailand’s military service – may see it as little more than high jinks, or as an opportunity for peer bonding. 
However, with the passing of every academic year, the evidence for more extreme abuse mounts – and not only through photos and video but also through the claims of those who are increasingly inclined to speak out. It follows that what we are witnessing on Thai university campuses today could often be more accurately described as ritualised abuse, and violations of human rights.  
These concerns are evidently well founded, as every year we observe serious physical injuries as a consequence of these university rituals. Regardless of the facade behind which they operate, or the pretext under which they are tacitly permitted, the suffering remains very real for the victims in this scenario. Allegations of abuse tend to indicate that it is psychological manifestations of abuse that are the most endemic. These typically involve menacing threats, intimidation and a lot of shouting.
Although many have accordingly argued that these practices should have been stamped out years ago, it is essentially the case that little has fundamentally changed, despite some recent attempts to tinker around the edges of this entrenched problem. Today, its advocates typically attempt justifications by arguing that rub-nong, through incorporating the so-called SOTUS (Seniority, Order,  Tradition, Unity, Spirit) system, promotes a respect for seniority, discipline and unity.
So what then, do recent graduates of the Thai university educational system make of all this? 
Krisanapong Jobsanjohn, an alumni of Ubon Ratchathani University, argues: “In Thailand, we are taught to believe in seniority, and so the SOTUS system fits with the Thai culture.” 
More critical is Kobchat Vichieansri, a graduate of Chulalongkorn University: “The SOTUS system is not at all relevant to university education. Also, it supports the existing patronage system within Thai society. This is why I think it should stop.”
Just recently, as reported across a number of media outlets (and especially through online social media that students typically follow), a serious complaint was submitted to the Office of the Higher Education Commission. Furthermore, the complainants are seemingly prepared to take their case to the United Nations representatives in Thailand if necessary. 
Should this development mark the beginning of a trend whereby individual students take on the responsibility of asserting both their basic human rights and constitutional rights, then this may be a form of progress. Nevertheless, the culture of hazing raises further questions as to whether institutions and the state truly recognise their responsibilities to act against this serious abuse. 
There is now the very real potential for a spike in the number of incidents, as those students who increasingly resent the SOTUS system attempt to exercise their freedoms in the face of those who are determined to exert their status and role as rub-nong ringleaders and retain their stranglehold on campus.
For its part, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) has begun making tentative steps towards a fuller recognition that a problem exists. It has published on its website a news report about allegations of abuse taking place within the higher educational system, and has begun working with four universities in the north of Thailand on the broader question of human rights. Thus we now have an important opportunity to observe whether the NHRC is prepared to take serious action on this matter. In previous years, it has typically remained rather quiet. 
When attempting to demonstrate they recognise the problem, the Ministry of Education and university executives have tended towards standardised, token statements over the past few years. These announcements have informed existing students that they have no right to force new students into the SOTUS system, and that within the SOTUS system, violence is not acceptable. Nevertheless, this limited approach to the problem has now proven ineffectual. Without further steps, this approach will increasingly appear to be serving the purpose of providing legal cover for those in positions of power, rather than being a genuine attempt to resolve this issue. 
In order to air their concerns, a group of university students in 2012 formed the Anti-SOTUS Group, which now has 10,000 Facebook members. But this is probably just the tip of the iceberg – there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that students are reluctant to speak out about institutionalised bullying.
The quality of higher education within Thailand can only suffer when an issue such as this remains as an unnecessary distraction and preoccupation for thousands of its students. Considering the relative status of Thailand’s higher education system on the world stage, the quality of its university education cannot at all be taken for granted.
The Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings 2013, released in April, saw Thailand claim only three places within the top 100. The latest equivalent figure for the world rankings was published for the year 2012-2013, and no Thai university was placed within the top 350 (King Mongkut’s University of Technology, Thonburi was ranked within the top 400).
It follows therefore, that it would be a dereliction of duty on the part of any Thai government to remain in denial when it comes to recognising how the SOTUS system contributes towards undermining both educational attainment and human rights within the country. But the question remains as to whether Thailand’s politicians and policymakers have either the will or motive to enact effective reforms for the sake of this latest generation.
Titipol Phakdeewanich is a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation at the University of Warwick, in the United Kingdom. He is based at Ubon Ratchathani University.

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