Disappearing into the haze

Uproar broke out in Parliament in the first sitting after the elections when the traditional hazing of new MPs was disrupted by a small protest group.

A YouTube clip shows a blurred image of two or three protestors holding placards on a stage while they are booed by the audience and violently denounced by a senior MP, thought to be a party whip, on the microphone.

An eyewitness, who requested anonymity, said that first night of the hazing programme, officially known as the Orientation Programme for First-Time MPs, was the target of a protest led by Purachai Piumsombun, party-list MP for the Rak Santi Party.

As a former Minister of the Interior, famous for his ‘social order’ campaign of a decade ago, MP Purachai was not expected to take part in the hazing. However, he felt strongly that the hazing was a violation of his party’s policies and decided to step in.

‘If MPs want to get drunk, obnoxious, and sing suggestive songs in loud voices, that is their own affair,’ he said. But he drew the line at the visit to the Seventh Heaven massage parlour and karaoke bar, which was a compulsory ‘rite of passage’ for all new male MPs.

‘This is an establishment of vice,’ said Purachai, ‘openly engaged in prostitution and reportedly with underage and trafficked women available. MPs should be working to close it down, not enjoying its services.’

He was surprisingly backed up by second-time MP Chuwit Kamolvisit, party list MP for the Rak Thailand Party. MP Chuwit explained that he was elected on a platform of opposing everything, so he had to oppose this. He was also against the brothel visit because it didn’t use one of his own establishments.

The hazing of MPs has attracted negative publicity over the years. Critics have said that the activities new MPs are expected to perform are demeaning, humiliating and degrading, and are inappropriate for those who are supposed to serve as the people’s representatives.

Defenders of the tradition say that the ceremony is designed to inculcate the proper ‘spirit’ (which is always pronounced as ‘sa-pirit’ and may not be related to the similar English word). The activity where MPs are expected to wriggle on their stomachs along a muddy path while a senior colleague waves a stuffed envelope in front of them is supposed to mimic proper parliamentarian behaviour.

‘The major parties want docile, obedient MPs who do what they are told without question, as long as they get their envelope every month,’ said one observer. ‘Some new MPs have acquired a bit of an ego after the election campaign. They start to believe that they were elected because they are good people and not because of the electoral machine behind them, distributing gifts and favours and eliminating dangerous opponents. They have to be shown that the correct way for a party MP to behave is to do whatever the party leaders say. Or whoever controls the party leaders.’

When reporters asked acting President of the National Assembly and Speaker of the House Chai Chidchob about the demonstration, he passed it off as a minor issue. ‘Some MPs know too much. Some have even studied for the degrees that they are required to have and you have to expect that some of them will have come across the idea of human rights. It is unfortunate but some have studied too much about human rights.’

Asked about the military-style uniforms worn by the senior MPs organizing the hazing, Speaker Chai said there was nothing in this. ‘Many of them are military officers,’ he said, ‘so what do you expect them to wear? Besides, it is a timely reminder to new MPs about where political power truly resides in this country.’

Mr Chai said that he was suspicious that the protest seemed to involve people who were not freshmen MPs. ‘We suspect that a few well-meaning individuals may have been infiltrated and their reasonable concerns have been subverted. We have to stamp this out or the institution may be affected.’ He did not elaborate on which institution he was referring to.

Questioned about the possibility that hazing activities were getting out of hand and parliament should exert greater control, the President of Parliament said that his office already kept a watch over what went on and they were confident that no MP would be accidentally killed or injured, as reportedly happened in earlier years. ‘Some will pass out, of course. It’s only natural given the amount they are forced to drink, but this part of an MP’s life that they will have to get used to sooner or later.’

When a reporter wondered if parliamentary hazing was not suitable for a mature democracy and should be banned, Mr Chai was visibly upset. ‘I went through it. My son went through it. And look what fine parliamentarians it made of us. This is an important part of what makes Thailand a democracy. If Thailand gave up on MP hazing, the country would go to rack and ruin.’