Thai graduates challenge graduation ceremony ritual

The tradition of attending graduation ceremonies is now being questioned and challenged. Students share their opinion on the process of preparing for the ceremony, especially during the pandemic, while a group of students has now turned rejecting the ceremony into an act of civil disobedience.

Thai universities are now entering the graduation season, with the already complicated tradition requiring tedious preparation on the graduates’ part made more difficult by the Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, waves of ongoing student-led protest are sweeping through the country, protesting against the government and calling for reform.

In the midst of the current political climate, students are raising questions and challenging the tradition of the graduation ceremony, even turning the act of rejecting it into a new form of protest.

The history and process of Thai graduation ceremonies

Graduation ceremonies in Thailand can be said to be more ostentatious than in other countries, as these events are traditionally presided over by a member of the royal family, and each element of the ceremony is strictly regulated. 

 

The first graduation ceremony in Thailand was held at Chulalongkorn University in 1930 and inaugurated by King Prajadhipok. This tradition continues today where members of the royal family preside over the graduation ceremonies of universities in Thailand and hand out the diplomas to the graduating class. Thailand is the only country that still has members of the royal family presiding over these ceremonies and handing out university degrees. 

Graduation ceremonies are time-consuming.  Students must typically undergo 2 day-long rehearsals as well as the day of graduation, which is normally held months after students have actually completed their studies.  Since the ceremonies are normally scheduled on working days in term-time, degree recipients must take time off work, both to attend the rehearsals and the ceremony itself, and normal teaching in their institutions is suspended. 

Regulations for dress, including underwear, and hair include the minutest details and are strictly policed.  Controversies have arisen over petty issues such as whether men with beards or moustaches can receive degrees. Some universities, such as the Khon Kaen University and the Phayao University, require their graduates to have back or ‘natural’ colour hair. Women are also often subjected to more dress requirements than their male peers, as, on many occasions, their dress was policed down to the colour of their stockings and whether they have nail polish on. The amount of time, effort and money expended by students, their families and their institutions, is enormous.

 

At many universities, transgender students who want to attend the ceremony dressed according to their identity are required to submit a large amount of paperwork, sometimes including a medical certificate stating that they have a “gender identity disorder,” despite the fact that being transgender is no longer classified as a disorder in the World Health Organization’s 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD11).

On the day of the ceremony, in addition to the dress code, graduates are not allowed to carry cameras or mobile phones into the graduation hall. At many graduation ceremonies, parents or relatives are not allowed to enter the hall as well.

Some of these requirements have very occasionally led to some students not attending the ceremony at all. But recently, the act of not attending the ceremony has evolved into a boycott campaign.

A call to vacate the hall

Aomtip “Alice” Kerdplanant, a graduate from Chulalongkorn University, wore a purple dress with sneakers under her academic gown to celebrate her graduation. The unconventional attire is a part of her campaign against the Thai tradition of graduation ceremonies.

Aomtip “Alice” Kerdplanant in her purple dress and academic gown

The campaign was first initiated on 8 August 2020 at a protest to demand the release of human rights lawyer Anon Nampa and student activist Panupong Jadnok. She urged all new graduates not to join the ceremony in the auditorium, and to have their diplomas be presented by those who have been involved in their education.

Aomtip explained that this campaign complements the student movement’s demands, especially the call for monarchy reform, in the hope that the message would be directed to the monarch by the sight of an empty hall. She said that the monarchy’s sacred status shifts the significance of the graduation ceremony away from graduates and it becomes a social norm which pressures graduates to attend, which can cause family conflict.

Aomtip also said that, apart from the cost, there are some nonsensical rules governing graduates’ appearance, such as requiring women graduates to wear a plain-colour bra and white slip.

She expects that those who support democracy would respond to the campaign, but she also understands if there are other factors, such as family pressure, preventing them from participating. She also realizes that she needs to work more on delivering the message to parents.

Aomtip said the campaign is made difficult by the sacred status of the royal family, but she believes that at least it will be a good start by prompting people to have more discussion in the family and society. She hopes that there will be more graduates boycotting the ceremony in future years.

“Actually, I think that [the ceremony] is not necessary. But at first, it’s just not going to the auditorium. That’s it. Do whatever you want. But I’m actually okay with celebrating with friends, but what we are rejecting now is not about receiving or not receiving a diploma, but more about who we receive it from. That is what I have been saying since the first time on stage until now.

“Eventually, after all the years that we studied, a degree diploma is just a final certificate but it is not a result of education. The result of education is knowledge and ability of the graduates who will or will not serve the country and society, or maybe repay their family. I think the core of education is knowledge, not a degree diploma.”

Family mission

MU graduates taking photos with their parents and friends at a popular spot on the campus

The general consensus among students on the reason for attending the ceremony was because their parents wanted them to. First-hand observation seemed to show more people in attendance at the MU campus than the international college (MUIC) campus. 

Maleewan Phoemchokchaithavee, an MUIC graduate, said that she was attending the ceremony because her parents made her do it even though her parents did not accompany her themselves. “It’s quite tiring, walking in heels. The process is quite lengthy, it takes a lot of time,” said Maleewan.

She also commented that due to the Covid-19 situation in Thailand, it was not a good idea to hold the ceremony because, even though people wore masks, no one was following social-distancing rules.

Another graduating student, Supakorn Chansaeng, said that the ceremony is important because it serves as a day where families and friends could meet each other after a long time because now those chances do not come too often. However, he added that the process is a bit confusing because there were a lot of procedures for the students to remember.

“A part of it is due to necessity. Another part is the red-taping that comes with it, so the ceremony kind of becomes a big mess,” said Supakorn.

MUIC graduates meeting their friends at a building on campus

Varinthorn Aussaneevuttikorn, a new graduate from MUIC and a member of the student activist group Coalition of Salaya Students, and his mother Jarunee Phattharadeachwongsakon joined the activities on the graduation rehearsal day

“I have been supporting my son so that he will get a diploma for a decoration, to show that my son has graduated. It is a guarantee certificate of my son’s success,” said Jarunee.

“I feel excited, happy, and I’m proud that my son did it. I hope that he will get work in the field that he studied. If he gets a good job, I will probably be very happy.”

 

Knowing that her son participated in the student protests, Jarunee said that even though she was very worried and wanted to stop him, she knew that she couldn’t. All she could do was support him and tell him not to be on the front line. She believes that her son will survive.

Varinthorn Aussaneevuttikorn and his mother Jarunee during the rehearsal day for the graduation ceremony

Varinthorn decided to attend the commencement ceremony and understood that the graduation ceremony is a cost that graduates have to pay.

Normally, MU graduates have to pay a graduation fee and a ceremony fee, but because of the pandemic situation, students this year do not have to pay the ceremony fee. But there are additional expenses, such as hiring a photographer, renting a graduation gown, and buying the photo of the moment one receives the diploma.  

One estimate of the total cost of the graduation ceremony is approximately 11,000 baht per person, which includes the pre-graduation photoshoot (1,000-1,500 baht/person), hair and make-up (1,500-1,800 baht/day), graduation outfit (females: 1,500-2,000 baht, males: 2,500-3,000 baht), photographer (3,000-4,000 baht/day or 1,500-2000 baht/half-day) and gifts (flower bouquet: 250-500 baht, doll: 100-300 baht).

Varinthorn said that he has heard about the campaign calling for graduates to not attend their ceremony and thinks that the campaign reflects problems and difficulties with the ceremony. However, students have the right to choose whether to attend or not. Although Varinthorn participates in a political movement, he still chose to attend.

“Actually, democracy is a diversity of ideas. I think we should accept each other’s rights. Whether anyone chooses to attend or not, I won’t say anything, because it’s their right. Personally, the reason I’m attending the ceremony is because getting a degree is something of a milestone for my family, and I am the first man in my family to get this chance. My family wants me to receive the diploma from a royal, and I’m doing it for my family. Also, graduation day is like an opportunity to meet my friends again because after we finished studying, we all went our different ways. We haven’t met each other for a long time and when we met, I felt good. I took over a hundred photos today.”

Even though the presence of a member of the royal family is a key element in most Thai graduation ceremonies, Varinthorn said that it makes no difference who the students receive their diploma from. He thinks that it is still tolerable to receive a diploma from HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn because he can be certain that the ceremony will not be postponed.

Many universities have postponed the graduation ceremony in the past few years. In 2018, graduation ceremonies at all Rajabhat universities for the class of 2017 were postponed to 2019 without any reason given. Khaosod Online reported that HM the King postponed the 2019 graduation ceremony for Thammasat students who had graduated in the academic year 2018 until April this year.  This was again postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

From ceremony to civil disobedience

Thammasat University recently announced that the graduation ceremony for the class of 2018 is to be held on 30 and 31 October 2020. The university announced that all graduates were required to take a “rapid test” for Covid-19 2 hours before their ceremonies, and those who tested positive for Covid-19 would not be allowed to attend.

At the rehearsals on 23-24 October at Thammasat University’s Tha Prachan campus, a group known as the People’s Graduates organised a campaign calling for graduates to not attend the official ceremony, with activities including exchanging tuition fee receipts for roses, distributing stickers and 112 diplomas designed by the artists’ network Free Art, speeches, and dances.

There were also cardboard cutouts of well-known members of the pro-democracy movement such as Pavin Chachavalpongpun and Somsak Jeamteerasakul and historical Thammasat luminaries like Puey Ungphakorn and Pridi Banomyong posing as if they were giving out diplomas, which people could take pictures with. There was also a cardboard cutout of Bernard, a vendor who has been selling salted nuts on campus for decades.

A cardboard cutout of political exile Somsak Jeamteerasakul, former history lecturer at Thammasat University and monarchy critic who is well-known among pro-democracy protesters, posed as if he is giving a diploma.

Supanut Kingkaew, 23, a representative of the group and a graduate of the class of 2018, told Prachatai that the images are of significant persons in the academic life of graduates, even Bernard the vendor. He said that this campaign was an act of civil disobedience to pressure the monarchy to accept the call for reform, and that if the monarchy still does not respond to the call, more graduates would reject the ceremony.

Supanut Kingkaew in his graduation gown reading the group’s statement against the graduation traditions and the education system along with other members of the group.

Isra News reported that less than 49% of graduates attended the rehearsal, according to Thammasat University’s Vice President for Academic Affairs Chalie Charoenlarpnopparut, whereas normally around 60-70% would attend. The Vice President also said that the political situation, the campaign calling for graduates to reject the ceremony, the university’s Covid-19 prevention measures, the long interval, and the sudden announcement of graduation dates may have contributed to the decrease in the number of participants.