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Others saw Chula-Thammasat Online Markets as opportunity, I saw a success story of SOTUS

Cover photo from CU and TU Marketplace

Online Markets are flourishing during the COVID19 Pandemic. People from different backgrounds are coming together to create online markets and communities for the survival of their businesses. So many universities have decided to establish their own communities which now attract social network communities and national news.  

On 7 April, Thammasat Marketplace or Thammasat lae kan fak ran was launched by TU students as an online marketing solution during the lockdown. It was then followed by Chula Marketplace on 14 April. The Thammasat group now has around 162,909 members and Chulalongkorn has 218,045; members are alumni, employees, students and shoppers.

At first, both groups sold general goods found in digital markets like Shoppe or Lazada, but as the popularity of these groups grew, more extraordinary items could be seen such as famous or celebrity alumni, luxurious properties like condominiums, or even real estate, and exclusive promotions for Thammasat and Chula graduates. (See Sanook, PPTV)

Some products and posts are quite extraordinary, some are impossible to afford, and some are just for fun.

However, there are contentious debates about these sites: were they a sympathetic way of helping small traders, or rather for boasting and promoting elitism? This led us to think about what actually contributed to this phenomenon. I saw a direct but imperceptible link to  SOTUS. Others saw an opportunity, but I saw its brutal shadow – SOTUS, authoritarianism, and the root of Thai culture.

So what is the essence of the SOTUS system in Thailand? SOTUS is a concept that is presently embedded in Thai universities under a variety of names such as rap nong, bai si, and CheerRoom. SOTUS is the acronym (in English) of 5 concepts that represent the traditional Thai belief in harmony: Seniority, Order, Tradition, Unity, and Spirit. It was first used when Chulalongkorn University was still the Civil Service Training School in the Vajiravudh period. The system was modified from elitist culture in England (where it is known as fagging) in order to cultivate good “matriculated” students (nisit) to serve the nation's needs, especially as royal pages or public servants.  At that time, it was benign; there was no sign of the ferocity of current day SOTUS practices, with the norms of seniority and respect being prominent in many written works. Later, Kasetsart, Maejo and other universities took over and modified this concept, which have deteriorated into today’s SOTUS, a form of hazing. (See: Khaosod English)

During the freshmen year, initiation activities will be held such as rap nong, where freshmen will spend their time being instructed by seniors, CheerRoom, where students will be encouraged to know the history of the university and sing the university songs, and FamilyCode or FamilyLine (sai rahat), where seniors will play a puzzle game, and at the end of the game, reveal the secret and make a commitment to care of their nong rahat (initiates) as part of their family. All these activities are a legacy to the next cohort in the future, or the “T” of tradition. After the activities, due to psychological-peer pressure which is the signature feature of the SOTUS structure, some students may really feel appreciated because of the SOTUS method; some will inherit the culture by in future years turning into a head of their cohort, threatening initiates, or even disguising themselves as phi nen (fake freshmen) to increase the pressure of SOTUS. But a small number may reject the system. In the news, SOTUS is recognized as a notorious activity where Thai society is starting to question its purpose and necessity, not only in terms of its harshness but also the designated and desirable outcome of SOTUS. (See: Khaosod English)

“I was there in the Political Science Faculty of Chula, and I perceived that the system of lions (sing), like the Black Lions (sing dam: Pol Sci CU) or Red Lions (sing daeng: Pol Sci TU) or even white, grey, or other colours of lion, is actually meaningful and counts for something in the ministries. But we all know that the dominant lions are always going to be sing dam and sing daeng. …

 “I want to add this to clarify to all of you how cruel SOTUS and Pol Sci CU are. Just a moment ago, Khun Phun gave the example of seniority and brotherhood of Pol Sci CU that if you graduated with a Master Degree at Pol Sci CU then Phun and I are a brotherhood.  The cruel thing is … they do not actually count you as a member of sing dam. This is true. In Pol Sci Chula or any programme in Chula, if you are from a graduate studies programme, you will be not recognized as one of “our” brotherhood systems, because you never passed the hardest admission exam of Thai universities with the highest score (Chulalongkorn University takes students with the highest scores in Thailand) and also you never were part of our 4-year matriculation culture.”

Statement by Pannika ‘Chor’ Wanich at an ANTI SOTUS Panel in 2018 (translated by the author). (See full video)

On the one hand, it actually demonstrates the success of the system by fulfilling the original purposes of SOTUS –harmony, benevolence, and (fraudulent) love. Through the process of initiation to graduation, students will involuntarily absorb the SOTUS concept. The sadistic SOTUS-related activities will be overlooked as they will be compensated for with greater benefits after exiting the prison of an educational system, as you will acquire easier jobs, better connections, and proper respect.

On the other hand, do we willingly succumb to these systems of manipulation, patronage and authoritarianism, and do we all now belong to the SOTUS system which has penetrated and become embedded in Thai culture?

As a result of SOTUS, students become bonded in loyalty to the identity of the institution. The “colour” culture is now apparent in Thai society. For instance, when a new graduate applies for a job, Human Resources departments will characteristically consider their educational background, and if the candidate graduated from an institution with the same organizational vision or biases of the recruiters, then it will be easier for that candidate to get the position through this patronage system.

In a sociology or cultural studies paradigm, this is cultural adaptation for group survival embedded into existing Thai culture. I would say that Thai culture and the harshness of human nature created the SOTUS system, and at the same time, SOTUS also shapes modern Thai culture. This process happens automatically, constantly, and eternally. If people are not aware of its existence it will soon turn Thailand’s development into a dystopia. Elitism cultures related to universities also occur in foreign countries such as the UK, where they have Oxbridge, the US Ivy League, and Korea’s SKY. This also can be explained in sociology as group identity, which emerges naturally in every society and network. But a more interesting characteristic in Thailand is the integration of SOTUS and the basis of Thai culture, which together drive Thai Society.

Today, SOTUS has become less influential among many top-tier universities like Chula, Thammasat, and Mahidol. (See Khaosod English) Even though weaker than in the past, the results and outcomes persist. Chula and Thammasat are considered to have the gentlest SOTUS in Thailand. Some of the traditional freshman activities were abolished by students themselves or forbidden by the university, such militaristic training, intensive cheerrooms, and shouted commands (wagger). This is especially the case in Thammasat, where egalitarian ideologies are valued. However, I do not say SOTUS is totally abolished at either Chula or Thammasat. The concept and implementation of SOTUS has just changed into a “positive” SOTUS rather than a “negative” SOTUS. (See how Chula students image SOTUS). Although, there is no violence related to the activities, and while “S” seniority and “O” order are de-emphasized, remember that “T” Tradition, “U” Unity, and “S” Spirit are still present. Even without bloodshed, SOTUS is still SOTUS. Some people argue that since only the last 3 letters are being used, it is not completely SOTUS. I would agree that without the 5 elements, it is not SOTUS. However, I say that  Seniority and Order, with or without a negative perception are just being soft-pedalled and are subtly persist.

Now let’s move to the Marketplace groups. If you want to post a deal in the Chula or Thammasat online communities, you first need to confirm that you are a genuine CU or TU student. An example posting: ‘Hey, I am “Fristoff” from Thammasat, Commerce and Accountancy, Code 44, Table Kho Khwai (the table system indicates that you were an undergrad, originally passed an entrance exam, and so are an indigenous Thammasat student), I am here to offer you … ’ During Covid-19, these two groups, as well as other universities’ online marketplaces, are proliferating. However, due to this rapid expansion, there are cases of con men who pretend to be a university member in order to make deals, or in other words, scam others. If the swindlers are caught, then trust me, they face a frightening prosecution by TU or CU alumni, especially if they picked wrong guy like a law graduate.

So, is SOTUS all negative?  I would say no, not all. There are both positive and negative reinforcements, purposes, and images. Nevertheless, SOTUS is SOTUS, a rose is a rose is a rose, “never a rose without the prick”, a dictator is a dictator; it will always be. If you look back, you will certainly see that a red rose is actually blood, and SOTUS is actually the gore of an artificial culture that older generations invented to confine us.

I admire the creators of the groups, vendors in the marketplace, and associated members, who are really witty, for accessing existing resources, the foundation of societies and cultures, and making precious profits. This opportunity for survival impresses me but at the same time, depresses me.

Do I suggest that we abolish the SOTUS system by ending support to elite institutions? No, I am not suggesting that as you cannot stop it, because you and I (yes, myself) are already part of the cultural system and structure. Banning the products of SOTUS will not result in anything better. It is good to subsidize people, groups, and networks that you care about and love. But I hope this will remind you how we created our own nation and destiny, and how societies and networks were corruptly constructed.

If you escape SOTUS like I did, you will end up without hope and will be relentlessly pursued by the nature of a system that follows you like a shadow; because it is you, and you belong to the system. It does not tell you to give up, but I am telling you to keep fighting, or if you cannot, just be aware of its existence; at least it will brighten the truth of society. But remember, if you do not run, it will run to you – the cruel truth.”

Bandhukavi Palakawong na Ayudhya or “Keng” is currently studying at the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University (International Program). He is a former member and committee member of the ANTI SOTUS group, which is fighting against hazing, patronage, and the culture of dictatorship.