Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Chula must not be shy in dealing with ‘ugly’ incident

Aug 05. 2017
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By The Nation

Probe must look into the larger aspect of such traditions and respecting the beliefs of individuals

Chulalongkorn University (CU) is planning to launch a probe into an “ugly” incident involving Ruengwit Bunjongrat, a lecturer at the university, and a prominent student activist over a highly publicised incident at the recent annual solemn oath-taking ceremony.

CU vice president Bancha Chalapirom called the incident that happened on Thursday inappropriate, but did not fault anyone.

The so-called “ugly” incident happened as Ruengwit was reportedly upset at student leaders Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal and Suphalak Bumroongkit for walking out of a ceremony in which first-year students go down on their knees to praise the statues of King Rama V.

When Netiwit was a freshman last year, he had taken part in the oath-taking ritual without kneeling down. However, on Thursday, he was seen leading some students out of their designated spots immediately after the ceremony ended while other participants at the ceremony remained in their rows, reportedly as a downpour began.

“We will set up committees to investigate the ethics and behaviour of the lecturer and Netiwit,” Bancha said.

The university’s response sounds rather lame, as if it wants to distance itself from the row. Perhaps Bancha and the university could do better than just set up a committee to investigate. 

More than going after the lecturer and the student leaders, the university itself needs to do some serious soul-searching. It needs to review its traditions as to whether such practices and ceremonies are a violation of one’s personal beliefs.

Punishing the lecturer for allegedly employing poor judgement at a heated moment will not solve anything.

Bancha said the incident had affected the image of CU. That is only understandable. When a lecturer puts a student in a headlock in front of a great number of people because he was exercising his political belief, the image of your institution is bound to be tarnished.

Does Bancha want students to go through their academic years and life implicitly obedient, even if it goes against their convictions? Does CU want its students to sleepwalk through life without being free thinkers?

In a statement published on the CU website on Thursday, Bancha said this lecturer had always worked closely with students and he might have been upset that the Netiwit-led group had failed to honour an agreement reached earlier.

Although Bancha apologised in the statement to Suphalak for the lecturer’s inappropriate reaction, he raised the possibility of a group of students plotting to make a scene during the ceremony. Netiwit, however denied any such plot.

Whether the walkout was planned or not is beside the point. The inquiry should not focus entirely on the lecturer’s conduct or whether Netiwit intended to be provocative.

Netiwit is a political activist. As an activist, it is his duty to expose the absurdity of rules, regulations, customs and traditions. Not everything has to be spontaneous. It can be planned.

Civil disobedience of this kind is not because the activist is rude or stubborn. They feel it is their duty to expose the absurdity of the existing rules, traditions and customs. Whether one agrees or disagrees with him is irrelevant. 

But there is no denying that Netiwit achieved more than what he had bargained for. Not only did he challenge this tradition of prostrating before a statue, he got the better of the university and some of the university staff who were there. In behaving as they did with the two student activists, the faculty members only degraded themselves personally and intellectually.

CU has given students the option of paying respects to the statues of the late kings with a bow or curtsey, if they wished. So far, most first-year students have chosen to kneel or sit politely on the ground and show their respects. Bancha said CU would continue the tradition of such an oath-taking ceremony because the institute had developed from a school for royal pages.

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