The modern Thai student movement - Part III

Part III of the Modern Thai Student Movement paper focuses on two other student organizations of Isan, Khon Kaen and Mahasarakham, who describe themselves as apolitical. While one focus on local social development and problems in education, the other set their goals on amending the “SOTUS” system, perceived as one of the social ill.

After tanks and military boots were deployed on the streets of Bangkok on 22 May to stage another coup d’état not even a decade after the 2006 coup, many anti-coup political dissidents flocked to the streets to protest against the new military regime. With the subsequent imposition of martial law however, the voices of these political dissidents eventually died down after months of arbitrary arrests and detention.

 

Nonetheless, it has become clearer that the new military regime’s reform policies and proposed bills on various issues, such as education, energy, natural resources, land reform, forestry, immigration, education and tax, will benefit some groups of people while negatively affecting others. NGOs and political activists have begun to challenge the junta once again despite the imposition of the martial law, which gives the regime unprecedented power to make arrests over any expression of anti-coup opinion. In November, five student activists from the Dao Din group of Khon Kaen University in the Northeast, gave the three-fingered salute to Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta leader. The students were immediately detained and later interrogated by the military. The military also involved their parents and threatened to have them fired from the university if they did not accept the junta’s conditions. Although the junta might expect the harsh treatment and intimidation of the Khon Kaen students to serve as a lesson to keep other young activists at bay, the result was the opposite.

One after another, despite the presumption that the era of Thai student movement ended with the bloody student massacre of October 1976, student activists of various political orientations began once again to voice opposition to the suppression by the junta. Although these new student movements are not mass youth movements affiliated with political ideologies as in the 1970s, neither are they affiliated with the current colour-coded political divide in Thailand. These young activists began to engage in many regional and national problems despite the obstacle of the martial law. To look into the history, dreams, and aspirations of these student activists, who are now at the forefront of Thailand’s political mobilization, Prachatai introduces the series “The Modern Student Movement,” by Emma Arnold and Apisra Srivanich-Raper.

Student forced to lay down facing the ground during the student crackdown in Thammasat University, which later turned into a brutal massacre on 6 October 1976

Continue from Part I and Part II

 

Working with the University

The Student Club for Development (ชมรมนักศึกษาเพื่อการพัฒนา), Khon Kaen University

Affiliation: University, Members: 100

Unlike Dao Din and Soom Kiew Dao, the Student Club for Development is a university-affiliated student organization. The university is their primary source of funding and approval. Members believe that being part of the university framework is better than being an independent organization.

“We have more credit when we work with villages because they ask us ‘Where are you from?’ And we say we are from KKU. We have the name of the university affiliated with our group, so we are more credible,” said Nichaphat Weeriyapukkanun, the organization’s newly elected president.

The group was founded in 1984 alongside the University’s Social Development program, with the primary goal of offering students the opportunity to do hands-on work with local communities. Today, this is accomplished through multi-day visits to local villages where members study development problems and later return to help implement solutions.

“I think my group is special because I have the chance to study communities and build a relationship with them,” explained Pornpailin Kaewwungpa, a third-year member. “People who only stay in the classroom cannot do this; they don't know the other world.”

Though they take a very similar grassroots approach to the distinctly political Dao Din, the students in The Student Club for Development are quick to establish that their group is not a political organization. If they were to be more directly involved in politics, it is unlikely that the university would continue to fund their group.

The Student Club for Development staged rally against the privatization of public universities in Khon Kaen University of Thailand’s Northeast on December 2011. The banner at the center reads “the poor....can’t study?” (courtesy from The Student Club for Development Blog)

“We focus only on social development, we let political beliefs be individual interests,” said Budsaban Somboopan, the organization’s former president. “I believe that my group gives each member the freedom of thinking,” said Phongsathon Kapmanee. He does not see this as being the case in the independent political organizations like Dao Din.

“I have found that in the Dao Din group, the members are not independent. When they think about something, every member thinks about it in the same way. There is some power that makes them all believe in the same things,” he explained.

Without shared political interests, members of the Student Club for Development are united in the simple desire to better society. It is apparent that this is what matters most to them.

“I am studying social development because I want to do something for society. I want to help people who have had less opportunity than me,” said Pornpailin Kaewwungpa.

Ms. Pornpailin is earnest in this conviction; when she speaks about changing society, she speaks with compassion. She tells a story from her childhood about how she once saw a poor woman with wounds on her feet get denied access to a local bus. “I was so unhappy for her, I felt so bad,” she said.

It is this empathy that has inspired her to work to alleviate social problems in Thailand.

Ms. Budsaban shares these sentiments. When asked why she loves her group, her eyes light up.

“I love that feeling you get when you help other people,” she says, “You feel like you are useful. Even though what you do to help might not really be a big thing, you still feel good about it.”

 

Fighting SOTUS

Phuan Sangkhom (เพื่อนสังคม) Mahasarakham University

Affiliation: Independent, Members: 30

Plook Hug (ปลูกฮัก), Mahasarakham University

Name: Plook Hug, Affiliation: Independent, Members: 30

While political turmoil persists outside, within the confines of Mahasarakham University there is another ongoing battle. Student groups Phuan Sangkhom and Plook Hug both aim to promote equality and democracy. For these two groups, this means fighting to bring down SOTUS, the traditional social structure found in universities across Thailand.

SOTUS-- Seniority, Order, Tradition, Unity, and Spirit, is a system of hierarchy and initiation. In this system, younger students are led through a series of activities by the older students within their faculties. Activities include loudly singing school songs in public for extended periods of time, wearing specific nametags, and attending mandatory events.

Although one of the goals of SOTUS is to create unity among students, it has a darker side. The system has come under harsh criticism as organized hazing. In the past activities were less regulated and often far more aggressive. Students have reportedly been forced to crawl through sewage water, publically humiliated, and even being beaten by seniors.

SOTUS operates independently from universities and is carried out by students. Most university administrations try to prevent activities from becoming violent, but they seem do little more than set vague regulations.

Nareumon Konroo (left) and Jakkrapob Lupromma, two members of the student group Plook Hug, work to cultivate political awareness. “Our group focuses on improving ideas and developing perspectives about politics,” said Mr. Jakkrapob. (Photo taken by Arnold and  Srivanich-Raper)

“Now, before students join SOTUS activities they must have the approval by their parents, because in the past some of the students got injured or hurt or they became sick. Some of them even died,” said Krishnachai Kaewskultu, Head of the Student Activity Section of the Department of Student Affairs at Khon Kaen University.

“I would say the system is effective, in some sense. But some seniors don’t care whether it is effective or not, it just has been done in a certain way to them so they do it again to the younger students.”

Together, Phuan Sangkom and Plook Hug are working to destroy SOTUS from within the university. “We do not support the SOTUS system because we believe that it is wrong. It is not democracy,” said Palagoon Poonklang a member of Plook Hug.

The two groups spread awareness of violence and mistreatment through a Facebook page on which they post videos, articles and stories. Group members also speak at welcome ceremonies and organize lunches for freshmen to discuss political events, with the goals of increasing political awareness and encouraging individual empowerment.

The groups offer an alternative to SOTUS: a program in which freshman can live in rural communities for several days and plant rice alongside older students. Group members believe that planting rice achieves many of the goals of the SOTUS system, without promoting oppression and inequality.

“The purpose of the SOTUS system is to build relationships between students, particularly between freshmen and older students. Planting rice also builds these types relationships and teaches responsibility,” said Opas Sintukod, a member of Plook Hug.

Bringing down the SOTUS system, however, is more complicated than it may appear. The battle against SOTUS is also against greater social pressures. SOTUS is a voluntary system, but opting out of it is not an easy choice to make. “Most students take part because they are new and they don’t know anybody,” explained Mr. Kaewskultu, “They have to join the system because if they do not do the activities, they will not be accepted. You become a nobody.”

Being forced to choose between social exile and collective hazing is not a fair choice to have to make. For this reason, both Phuan Sangkhom and Plook Hug consider SOTUS as exemplary of greater social pressures that oppress students. Until these pressures are challenged students will remain unfairly trapped in an undemocratic system. For the two groups, this is worth a fight.

 

The modern Thai student movement is to be continue on part IV