Hazing rituals at Thailand’s universities, known in Thai collectively as ‘rab nong’ (welcome the juniors), despite often coming under heavy criticism by the Thai and international press, as well as growing numbers of Thai anti-hazing groups for sometimes violent, dehumanizing, and humiliating practices, remains prevalent in Thailand.
Hazing, which comes under the banner of SOTUS (Seniority: Order: Tradition: Unity: Spirit), at its worst has led to the deaths of students, although loss of life is fortunately something that hasn’t happened often. The degradation of juniors by seniors, however, is commonplace, and has been widely reported by the press and students themselves.
Following a piece I wrote called ‘Sanctioned Sadism’, the mostly Thai commenters on the article were polarized in their feelings towards the indictment. Asian Correspondent’s Facebook post, which garnered over 20,000 comments, was taken down. I contacted Facebook about this, but no reason was given, nor has the post ever resurfaced. It is perhaps possible that a large number of complaints were made by Thai commenters, given that many denied that any kind of barbarism, or even ill-will, existed at hazing rituals – even in the face of a large amount of photographic and video evidence. This evidence was partly collected by a number of Thai activists and students (some of whom were interviewed) that have asked that the practice be stopped, or at least transformed.
A criticism I made is that while the more barbaric side of Thai hazing is not always evident at universities, hazing is more often than not oppressive. The casting of authority with a view to obeisance towards elevated figures and the conditioning of youngsters into their place in the hierarchy is what is meant by Seniority: Order: Tradition: Unity: Spirit. Understanding status, and your rightful place in the hierarchy, is part of the Thai traditional education system. It is the preamble to the workplace. It is the preamble to a largely fixed rat-race. Rather than educating the person that they are to become a creative free-thinking, critical individual, as one should become in university, the purpose of SOTUS is to collectivize students’ thinking and foster in them the belief that they are going to be chained to a hierarchal system that must not be challenged. It is not ‘welcome the young’, it is a welcome to the pecking order.
This is one of the reasons why the Thai education system is so poor, and why the majority of Thai students today are unable or unwilling to criticize the current or past governments; or any other organizations where people are contained within a tightly structured and often inviolable hierarchy. This is also likely why reforming hazing has never been high on the list of governments’ priorities. Indeed, in many ways SOTUS mirrors the current government’s often non-democratic values. Countless articles are published year after year relating to improving Thailand’s impoverished education system, and while oversized classes and poor facilities are partly to blame for this, it is the inability of students to openly express opinions, to criticize and think critically, that is the major problem. The fact that senior teachers are very rarely criticized within an institution, or that archaic teaching practices and superannuated codes of so-called ethics still exist in schools, is partly due to senior staff and administrators being untouchable within their institutions.
Thai students work notoriously long hours, they take a lot of tests, but when the system in which they are working in is broken – and no one is willing to talk about why it is broken – many Thai students only hope of a good education is international school, going abroad, or self-learning. What matters much of the time is not the inherent value of the education but the teddy bears’ picnic graduation photo, and more importantly the significance of the certificate to perform in the workplace. It would be unfair to say that many Thai students do not receive a good education, or that educators in some schools don’t embrace creativity and critical thinking, but for the most part the system is deeply flawed. A substantial testament to this criticism is the case of the head of Thailand’s National Innovation Agency (NIA) largely plagiarizing his PhD dissertation – and the fact that the British academic who exposed the plagiarist was recently detained because he was deemed a ‘danger to Thai society’. The problems associated with this dysfunction, if they are deconstructed, will lead back to the dominance and maintenance of hierarchy – the main function of the SOTUS regime.
Thailand needs sex education, not sexualized hazing
A recent video that appeared online, now shared by over six million people, shows Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University students during a hazing ritual perform clothed faux-copulation. Once again, mostly Thai commentators on social media seem split between this caught-on-video act as just a storm in a tea cup, harmless fun, or sexual harassment and enforced humiliation. The university condemned the activity, and said it would take action against the students.
According to the Bangkok Post the student who took the video said that the females were actually ladyboys (transgender males), as if that would soften the alleged misdemeanor. The Post also found that one Thai student commenting on the video thought that it may have been a sex-ed video. The Nation published a similarly critical story about the need to stop this, “bizarre and barbaric tradition”. Not much was said about why SOTUS exists in the first place, and why it is fundamentally part of Thai traditional culture. It is interesting however that anyone might think that this gangbang style, pile-on romp could relate to sex education.
The students in the video clip did not seem to be suffering too much, and may even have enjoyed their part in the misadventure. This kind of puerile erotic behavior happens in schools, universities, and even workplace end-of-year parties – I’ve been there. While it could certainly feel like harassment to some people, and perhaps at times get out of hand given the virility of most males at that age, how unethical it is will always depend on the situation and the feelings of those involved. It would be hard to call it ‘barbaric’ if the adults were consenting. But then peer-pressurized sexual acts, even if vaudevillian, are likely not that enjoyable for anyone – more so for the young women under a pile of randy males.
It does however show a certain level of immaturity concerning sexual relations or how students relate to sex. Sex education in Thailand is still mostly unheard of, while talking about sex is widely seen as a taboo subject in most social or formal situations. It’s reported that Thailand has the second highest rate of teenage pregnancy in ASEAN, after Laos. Prostitution in Thailand is widespread, and a large number of young Thai men lose their virginity to prostitutes according to various reports. At the same time it’s also a widely held belief that so called good girls in Thailand still suffer under the influence that they should not have premarital sex. Young people are certainly having lots of sex, but it’s just not talked about much. It’s not something schools address, or something parents are expected to discuss with their children. The contradiction of having it but not openly talking about having it creates an uncommunicative society on a very serious but also trivial matter.
Indicative of how Thai education fails in understanding and accepting a teenager’s natural sexual desires was the 2012 O-NET (Ordinary National Educational Test) for Health Education. Upper high school students were asked, “If you have a sexual urge, what should you do?” The options were:
- Ask friends to play football with you
- Talk to a family member
- Try to sleep
- Go out with a friend of the opposite sex
- Invite a friend to watch a movie
We should add that O-Net exams are important because the scores can determine which university a student gains entrance to. The correct answer, according to the National Institute of Educational Testing Services (NIETS), was 1: play football. Given that football is very rarely played by schoolgirls in Thailand this might suggest that sexual urges in girls aged 17/18 don’t even exist. This reflects the unearthly value that girls should be asexual until it’s time to collect a dowry and procreate. As for Thai males, any virile man with a sexual urge knows that masturbation is the only rational answer. That is if they are not in a sexual relationship. Just reading the test question probably made many of the students horny, and playing football, all girls and boys know, was verily NOT the correct answer.
What message does this send to young Thai people? What kind of a topsy-turvy world must they think their elders live in? Should they think that their natural predisposition to feel sexual urges is somehow wrong, unnatural, something that should be deterred, deferred, or taken out on a defensive midfielder? It pushes sex underground, where there is evidently plenty of it being had. It also creates a sexual immaturity that can be seen in the recent hazing video clip. Rather than placating your sexual urges with fully clothed strangers in a crowded rooms, jeered at by tormenting seniors, maybe it would be better to be in a healthy relationship with a rounded understanding of what is happening and what could happen if you have unprotected sex.
But education in Thailand, with hazing as part of it, is less about learning and expressing ideas, about honing creativity, as it is about following demands and understanding that you must abide by certain anachronous traditional rules. And traditionally, young Thais don’t have sex, even though they do. How confounding it must be for a student to be fastened to the past yet growing up embedded in a new, globalized Thailand. A Thailand where pornography sites are banned, and boobs are pixelated, yet where visiting a brothel is a rite of passage. This is why more young Thais can presently be seen challenging the status quo and fitted traditions on a regular basis. The education system has to catch up with this changing Thailand before it alienates, or even becomes the laughing stock of, its own students.