“IT’S like being in hell,” said one university student, describing the feeling of taking part in one of Thailand’s notorious, and seemingly intractable, university hazing rituals. The practice of hazing in Thailand, which goes under the acronym SOTUS (Seniority: Order: Tradition: Unity: Spirit), or Rab Nong (welcoming the young), is thought to have originated in Kasetsart University in the late 1940s, modeled on hazing at Cornell University and other universities in the US. Cornell has now prohibited hazing; in Thailand it’s incorrigibly recurrent in many universities.
In Chiang Mai this month senior students at Chiang Mai University came under the spotlight after it was revealed that new students, freshies, had been beaten sometime between April 17-19. Pictures of their bruises, albeit not severe, appeared later on social media. The university avowed to investigate and punish seniors, likely reenacting their own freshman welcome, only if they did it, “without approval from the university,” according to a report in Khaosod. However, approved SOTUS, and its unapologetically fundamental criteria of often violently introducing new students to the university and its hierarchy, will no doubt remain intact, as it is a consequence of a wider culture that pervades the Thai ethos: that of entrenching young minds in a hierarchical order.
Students during hazing at worst might be stripped naked, beaten, sexually harassed, forced to crawl through dirty water, even killed (though you would think accidentally), and at the very least, in the negative, be shouted at and humiliated. At times hazing might look more like university sanctioned sadism than it does a warm welcome.
Phokhai Saengrojrat, a student at Pathumthani Technical College, died after reportedly being forced to consume an alcoholic drink and soon after having his face pushed into the sand at Sai Noi Beach in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province, after which, reports say, he suffocated. The boy’s parents later told the press that they wanted the loss of their child to be the last time such a thing happens due to hazing. There have been other deaths. In 2008 a student from Uthenthawai University died from injuries sustained during a hazing session. Photos and videos, students claimed at Chiang Mai University, are not allowed during these rituals, but since of the arrival of social media hazing has thankfully been scandalized to an almost effective degree.
A short film called ‘Vicious Cycle’ (below, with English translation), made by Thai students, demonstrates the brutality of the hazing ritual. Anti-SOTUS social media pages, which have gained thousands of followers, have been set up in an attempt to give the barbarity of SOTUS some public attention, and yet, in spite of such a prevailing negative backlash to this ordained university culture, it continues.
The Ministry of Education has stated that students are under no obligation to attend such rituals, and has laid down guidelines, which include: “Morally follow acceptable traditions and the culture of society”, and “No harassment both physically and mentally”. The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) has in the past made some progress, it seems, working with universities on human rights issues concerning hazing, and yet, the practice goes on.
The student who compared SOTUS to a living hell wrote on the Anti-SOTUS Facebook page that students at Maejo University in Chiang Mai, infamous for its severe hazing rituals, had been given some commandments to adhere to (hundreds of students protested against SOTUS at Mae Jo in 2011).
1) Respect Maejo law as the law of the Kingdom itself.
2) Do the right thing. Do what the seniors tell you.
3) Finish your sentence with ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ every time when you address an upperclassmen.
4) Upon hearing Maejo’s anthem you must stand to attention, heads down and salute.
Students report that often peer pressure, and fear of being ostracized, is one of the reasons they attend the hazing rituals. One philosophy major told Chiang Mai CityNews, “The seniors will tell all the other students not to talk to you. Freshmen don’t want to be separated, so they do it. Many students don’t want to do it, but they are too afraid to say anything. We want to be able to make a choice; our hope is that soon it will change.”
There are students that support the ‘tradition’, even in the face of protests, and others state that SOTUS had given them strength and confidence, admiration for the institution, with one student writing on an Anti-SOTUS Facebook page, “SOTUS made me love my university forever. It stuck with me for life.”
SOTUS is by no means always a reprehensible activity, devoid of good intentions, plagued by violence. It is, as can sometimes be seen on university campuses, a little bit of fun. But even so, the nature of SOTUS has an underlying, unequivocal, prerogative: to oppress an individual’s freedom. Thailand’s newspapers often lament the lack of critical thinking among individuals. In truth, they should be chastising these university rituals, because that’s where critical thinking is hammered out of students before they even pay their book fees.
Outspoken academic at Chiang Mai University, Tanet Charoenmuang, now retired, wrote a paper called, ‘Shouting – The Creation and Inheritance of Dictatorship in University’, outlining how SOTUS impinges on human rights and freedom, stating that students conditioned in the hazing system, “in my mind, are victims of a dictatorship system.” This was before Thailand had a real, unambiguous dictator.
Let us compare some of the above commandments at Maejo University to some of Prayuth’s 12 Core Values, which students are asked to recite each morning at school.
- Upholding the nation, the religions and the Monarchy, which is the key institution: (Respect Maejo law as the law of the kingdom itself).
- Being grateful to the parents, guardians and teachers: (Do the right thing. Do what the seniors tell you).
- Maintaining discipline, respectful of laws and the elderly and seniority: (Finish your sentence with ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ every time when you address an upperclassmen).
- Putting the public and national interest before personal interest: (Upon hearing Mae Jo’s anthem you must stand to attention, heads down and salute).
Because SOTUS is consanguineous with a hierarchical, dictatorial system, it is absolutely undemocratic. SOTUS is not anomalous, confined to bad boys and girls within the grounds of academia; SOTUS is ingrained in Thai culture, dare I say, it’s Thainess, or at least one of the more negative aspects of the nebulous umbrella term that is very reductively supposed to define all Thais. Getting rid of SOTUS is a good idea, but it’s not ideal, because what brought it into being is bigger than what happens on campus.
Hazing rituals are not only evident in academia. The Thai army, as is shown in lurid photos on the NoConscript Facebook page and can be seen in videos that occasionally surface on social media, seems to have its own form of hazing, which usually seems to entail highly abusive enforcement of homo-erotic acts on conscripts. In the video highlighted the young soldiers laugh, but their treatment is far from amusing – maybe laughter is the best mechanism to assail such oppression, as children are apt to do reflexively sometimes when forced into a corner.
As with SOTUS, humiliation and the liquidation of dignity seems to be the modus operandi of the senior oppressors. Again, this is to preserve the status regimen, simply, to put people in their place, and while the army’s thoroughly nasty didactic approach to conditioning might be more severe than what we see in educational intuitions, it’s all part of the same ethos: to weaken individuality and enforce a belief in a carefully structured hierarchy.
The oppressed, once endowed with authority and seniority, become the oppressors, and as the students who made the video so perfectly put it, the Vicious Cycle continues. And it won’t end until the hierarchy itself is deconstructed in the minds of Thai people.