Interview by Fah SK, translated into English by Kaewmala
Original Thai interview was published by Prachatai on Sunday, 8 September 2013
On the evening of Thursday, September 5, 2013, a group of Thammasat University students posted 4 posters on various notice boards around the Thammasat-Rangsit campus. The posters show students in uniform posing in heterosexual and homosexual acts. Each poster has a caption (see images below):
Top left: “At the last midterm did you still have to wear your student uniform?”
Top right: “When student uniforms are being challenged”
Bottom left: “Don’t student uniforms make having sex more fun?”
Bottom left: “Free your humanity from the shackles”
These posters are part of the campaign against a mandatory student uniform rule (which requires students to wear student uniforms to class and examinations—translator).
Around noon of September 6, the university ordered university personnel to remove these posters and told security guards to prevent any further displays. Meanwhile, the four posters have already made their way onto the internet, provoking a lot of debate on their appropriateness and meaning—what they have to do with a campaign against mandatory student uniforms.
Prachatai sat down with “Aum Neko” (nickname), a sophomore Arts student majoring in German Language. She is also the female student featured in the three of four posters. She looks a real woman, but anyone who has been following “Aum Neko” will understand [what she meant when she said] there were no women willing to join the campaign (“Aum Neko” is a transgender—translator).
Prachatai: Why did you make posters of people in sexual poses wearing Thammasat student uniforms?
“Aum”: I want to post a question to the Thammasat community and also communities outside: why does a university that prides itself on freedom force students to wear uniforms in many classes in many faculties, especially those in the science field? For instance, there’s a sign that says: “Science [Faculty], Thammasat, Unite To Wear Student Uniforms To Honor Our Institution.”
So I was thinking, well, the university rules say [students should wear] “polite attire,” but in reality these rules are not accepted. Even the BBA [Bachelor of Business Administration] Programme, Accounting Faculty, even now has a poster that says “No Uniform, No Service”.
Prachatai: Were the posters distributed a result of the TU130 class which required students to wear uniforms to class? (According to the 2013 calendar year, TU130 is an interdisciplinary science and technology course which is a basic requirement with 2 credits. There was an incident in which students not wearing the student uniform were not given question sheets in an examination—interviewer.)
“Aum”: Partly. We targeted 2-3 issues. Firstly, it’s TU130 that has forced students to wear student uniforms for a long time and the university has been aware of this but there has been no reaction. We are not sure if Ajarn Prinya Thewaniramitkul coming out to give an interview [to confirm that Thammasat University has no mandatory student uniform rule—translator] means he didn’t really know what was going on or not. We can’t make any judgment on this. Another issue is that there are some classes in Science, Accounting, and Arts (Thai Language curriculum) that require students to wear uniforms to class and to exams.
Prachatai: And your proposal is there should be no requirement for students to wear uniforms to classes or to exams, is that correct?
“Aum”: Yes, there should be no such requirement. The third issue is, there should be no uniform requirement for examinations because, at the end of the day, what does it indicate? Is it your uniform that’s doing the exam, or your brains? Civilized countries don’t have student uniform requirements for exams.
Prachatai: Many people consider [wearing] student uniforms as showing proper respect to [the university].
“Aum”: We need to ask, if you leave out the university part, then what is the philosophy or purpose of education? Surely a university means a centre of many fields of studies; it offers us learning and access to many sets of knowledge and ideas for further learning, to develop creativity and maximum potential benefit.
But why do educational institutions contradict [these ideals] and believe that in Thai society, educational institutions are a place for well-behaved students, and you must be politely dressed in a student uniform in order to take part in this society? Education should be diverse and tolerant of differences. Don’t brand different as “crazy.”
Prachatai: Why aren’t you proud of Thammasat University uniforms? Not everyone can get into Thammasat.
“Aum”: You want to be proud, you can be proud, but don’t force others [to be proud]. We’re not stopping anyone from wearing the uniform. We should have a choice [to wear or not to wear the uniform]. And you shouldn’t impose your own morality on others and say they are not being appropriate without asking why you think it’s inappropriate. What kind of value or ideology did [your idea] come from? Why do you think that?
Prachatai: How do you explain each picture?
“Aum”: The first picture: “At the last midterm did you still have to wear your student uniform?” is the one in which I sit on the floor, disheveled, performing oral sex. It’s like a coerced orgasm, like a penis stopping you from talking, expressing a different opinion; you can’t turn away because your back is against the wall.
We created this work and we wanted people to think about it differently. Like we are forced to wear the uniform to the exams without any recourse, although Thammasat says we have freedom. We want to communicate that you can’t talk, and if you talk you get criticized. In this picture we want to pose a question: Why do we let ourselves be forced to do it? So we made an artsy, sexy picture.
Prachatai: The picture of two male students “When student uniforms are being challenged,” what does it mean?
“Aum”: We think that besides the gender issue not being well accepted in Thai society, homosexuality is even more stigmatized and rejected because it challenges heterosexuality. [The picture] is telling [Thai] society that it’s time to be open about homosexuality because it exists.
Prachatai: And what does that have to do with student uniforms?
“Aum”: It says that society is diverse, and comprises not just heterosexual men and women. [There are also] homosexual people. The picture speaks to society that it needs to open up a space for me, give some space for difference.
Prachatai: Meaning being male isn’t limited to just heterosexual masculinity?
“Aum”: Yes. It’s similar to my previous campaign issue that (male-to-female) transgenders aren’t allowed to wear female student uniforms for the picture on the university ID card. So we asked why the Registrar didn’t cancel the mandatory student uniform picture for the student ID because student uniforms are very heterosexual, and reinforce heteronormativity that includes only [heterosexual] male and female genders, while in fact some in female uniform are very ‘manly’ but have no choice. So this [uniform rule] becomes a measure that imposes [gender] inequality and suppresses gender identity.
Prachatai: Why isn’t there also a picture of a girl with a girl?
“Aum”: Difficult. No female [students] wanted to take part in taking pictures with us. But the male-male picture also represents a female-female picture because both are about homosexuality.
Prachatai: The next picture “Don’t student uniforms make having sex more fun?” What does it mean?
“Aum”: This picture got voted the most provocative of all four. We ask why do people see it that way? The fact is, a hooker’s price goes up if they wear a student uniform. Better price because of the value attached to student uniforms.
Prachatai: Does this mean the perception about student uniforms can add value to sex too? It’s not just about intellect?
“Aum”: Yes, its meaning is not limited to just the student role.
Prachatai: Even so, what do these 3 or 4 sexual poses have to do with being opposed to the rule against mandatory student uniforms?
“Aum”: A student uniform controls the body of the person [who wears it]. Even sex is sex with a student identity, not with the personal identity of [the partner].
Prachatai: What’s wrong about that?
“Aum”: It’s not wrong but we’re saying that [the student uniform] is controlling you. You have a choice to liberate yourself. We use sex to explain partly because it’s socially objectionable.
Prachatai: Meaning the student uniform [implies] not only intellect but it can have other meanings, is that right?
“Aum”: Yes. Sex, which is a social taboo, is having intercourse with this pure and pristine ideology of studenthood, of morality. It’s about power that doesn’t allow sex and power that controls morality—and that is the definition of the student uniforms.
Prachatai: The fourth picture “Free your humanity from the shackles,” what does it mean?
“Aum”: In this picture, my hand was grabbing the red towel; it’s ecstasy from [my] humanity being let free from within. That is to say your humanity is being liberated through sex which society says is objectionable. Release it.
Prachatai: How does this relate to the campaign against mandatory student uniforms?
“Aum”: I’d like society to be provoked and to ask why we are doing this. Humanity is reflected in the body. We should accept that whether or not we have sex in student uniforms we can be sexual. Student uniforms obstruct our humanity. All this is saying that we [students] are sexual beings.
Prachatai: You’re saying, if judged by social norms there shouldn’t be pictures like these, but you’re asking, in this picture, for [these pictures or the taboo] to be released?
“Aum”: Yes. Don’t use the old set of morals to define [behaviour].
Prachatai: When did you take these four pictures?
“Aum”: Over a month ago. We meant to make campaign posters that focus on the sexual aspect as the key theme because sex is taboo and is not openly accepted. Like not wearing student uniforms is a taboo and not accepted.
Prachatai: Does all this have anything to do with sexual fantasy about student uniforms?
“Aum”: Well, we do have a funny gag. In the picture entitled “Don’t student uniforms make having sex more fun?”, the monkey-carrying-a-melon act, we want to communicate why this sexual act in student uniforms is sexually more stimulating. We want to say that you are not having sex with [just] the person you’re having sex with but you’re also having sex with the educational institution of that person.
Prachatai: The background of the pictures?
“Aum”: The male models are all friends at the university, but they want to remain anonymous. We have three male models and the model that looks like a woman [is me]. I take the female role because no [women] wanted to take pictures with us.
Prachatai: Is it because people think you are a woman, and that’s why they are upset?
“Aum”: I also want to project that I’m a woman. The homosexual representation is the picture of two men which also represents [female homosexuality]. The photographer wanted it to come out artful.
Prachatai: It’s been over a month. Was that when there were problems with TU130?
“Aum”: Yes, [but] we’ve had [problems with TU130] for a long time.
Prachatai: So why didn’t you distribute the pictures then?
“Aum”: We just made them into posters. We posted them at the Thammasat-Rangsit Campus, and they were removed after two days. My friends said the security guards [at the campus] ordered the removal of all of our posters and checked the CCTV cameras in case anyone posted any more. It’s turned out to be a thought crime in a place that is known to be democratic.
Prachatai: What’s the name of your group?
“Aum”: It’s a free group with no name. We all helped in the thinking and conceptualizing and the wording, as well as in explaining the work after it has become public because some people may not understand what we are trying to say.
Prachatai: So you knew that people would ask the question what these posters have to do with objecting to mandatory student uniforms?
“Aum”: Yes, we wanted society to interpret [the relationship] between sex, which is objectionable, and student uniforms. This is actually the reality but it’s a reality that’s not accepted in mainstream society.
Prachatai: Meaning some people may have sexual fantasies about student uniforms?
“Aum”: Correct. A huge amount of fantasy [about that] but they aren’t brave enough to say it out loud. [Student uniforms] signify not only intellect.
Prachatai: In a way, are you saying that it’s not that sacred?
“Aum”: Yes. It’s not that sacred. If you want to wear it, by all means, wear it and think whatever you like to think. If others don’t think along the same line, why should they do what you tell them to do?
Some say this is hurtful and a blasphemy. Well, you want to be proud, go ahead. But you can’t make people think exactly the same. Making people in the whole country like the same thing is not possible.
Prachatai: So where is your Thammasat identity? If not in student uniforms, where is it?
“Aum”: It’s in respect for others’ freedom, adherence to democracy, and no support to any form of dictatorship, in particular coups d'état.
The main identity of Thammasat is the 24 June 1932 revolution. Then we had the first constitution on 27 June 1932. Next we had the establishment of Thammasat on 27 June 1934. Therefore, our stance should be preserving the constitution. But these days as it turns out the [university] management is preserving authoritarian power, even making us wear student uniforms; they are preserving the sacredness and power instead of rights and freedom according to the philosophy of the university.
Prachatai: Aren’t student uniforms part of being Thammasat?
“Aum”: If they are, it’s an explanation of those who are proud (of it). But let me ask, even from the early days of Thammasat, when it was the University of Moral and Political Sciences, it was an open market of ideas, an open university. There were no student uniforms. It was only after 1957 when Mr. Samak Sunthornvej wanted student uniforms. It’s something relatively recent.
Apparently we wanted to be like Chula [Chulalongkorn University], so we wanted student uniforms too. It was a romantic era. But I’m not saying we can’t have [uniforms] because you have the right to express your view. If you want to wear [a uniform], you can, but don’t use the standards of people who are proud to limit the freedom of other people. If you want to wear it, wear it. If you want to design a new uniform, go ahead. Just don’t force [us] to wear it.
Prachatai: Don’t you want to wear the Thammasat’s Dharmacakra [Dharma Wheel] pin on your chest or the buckle?
“Aum”: It’s evident that these have a militaristic inspiration. Like you have a seal or pin of a military division. If we’re going with the full, extreme Thammasat-ness, then [the pin] should be cancelled because it is an authoritarian legacy. We are among a very few countries in the world that still make university students wear uniforms. Even though Thammasat says it does not make student uniforms mandatory, in practice it does.
Prachatai: What tangible symbol represents Thammasat University in your mind?
“Aum”: [Thailand’s] first 27 June 1932 constitution, after the 24 June 1932 revolution.
Prachatai: You don’t see the Dome or the Dharmacakra?
“Aum”: No, because those came later. But they are important too, just that the first thing about Thammasat is the 27 June 1932 constitution and [Thammasat] was established on 27 June 1934, linked to a new system that gives genuine rights and freedom to the people. But now Thammasat has become a collection of material structures, be they the Dome or the Founding Father Pridi Statue. Now we have family, father-mother-children values.
Prachatai: How do see Ajarn Pridi and his contributions?
“Aum”: Ajarn Pridi [Banomyong] made enormous contributions. Without him there would be no Khana Ratsadon. And who knows, those criticizing us today might still be serfs and slaves. You have the right to type on your Facebook today because we have a democracy that includes education after the revolution led by Khana Ratsadon.
Translator’s Notes: 1) For more updates on the Thammasat uniform debate see further interviews by the Bangkok Post, “Uniform Opinions.” 2) Aum Neko was a centre of controversy last year when she posed provocatively with the Pridi Banomyong Statue in protest against what she viewed as hyper-reverence for the founding father of Thammasat who had been made into something sacred, untouchable and beyond criticism. She said Pridi was not a superhuman and if he is exempted by supposedly liberal-minded people from criticism then how can the principle of equality be applied to all.
About the translator: Kaewmala is an independent researcher and writer. She is an occasional contributor to Prachatai and blogs more regularly at thaiwomantalks.com and the collaborative blog SiamVoices on Asian Correspondent.