The content in this page ("SOTUS: From dictatorship in disguise to perpetual political and social failure in Thailand" by Bandhukavi Palakawongsa na Ayudhya) is not produced by Prachatai staff. Prachatai merely provides a platform, and the opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of Prachatai.

SOTUS: From dictatorship in disguise to perpetual political and social failure in Thailand

Cover photo is used with courteasy of the Rap Against Dictatorship, the original source.

You may sometimes hear about SOTUS – related rap nong activities in the news. It is still a controversial issue that people still hold different opinions about it.

But before you start the article, consider this statement:

(At the bottom) "[I support] SOTUS, but don't want dictatorship"

Consider the following statement: “I love and promote democracy, but I also support SOTUS.”  The comment comes from a post on social media.  The author was discussing student hazing, known in Thai as rap nong activities, at an unnamed university.  Although seemingly harmless and fun, such activities are often designed to promote respect for seniority, order, tradition, unity, and spirit (SOTUS).

Is the statement logically consistent?

I am not sure if the speaker means SOTUS in general or the Thai tradition of hazing. In either case hazing is used to promote dictatorial SOTUS culture. It seems to me that if you promote it, it can be concluded that you are simultaneously supporting dictatorship. We all know that dictatorship is an adversary of democracy. You cannot say that you love democracy but support SOTUS culture at the same time, right? Because what you are saying is nonsensical. They just cannot go together.

SOTUS values cannot be a part of a democratic society. They provide a foundation for dictatorship and remain an important mechanism for perpetuating dictatorship in Thailand.

What does SOTUS really mean?

SOTUS is a combination of doctrines. If you google the term, your search will lead to a popular Thai drama series, the BL love story of a university student at an engineering school. Media misrepresentation aside, the real SOTUS is not a beautiful, young love story like that, however.

As noted above, in Thailand SOTUS is associated hazing or initiation ceremonies, particularly in higher education. These ceremonies are comprised of many activities, some seemingly harmless and others clearly abusive. Sometimes the purpose of such activities is clear and other times not.  Such activities include: Cheer Room (introduction to university songs); wak (screaming at disobedient students); raprun (symbolically adopting a sense of cohort with seniors); passing objects from mouth to mouth kind of activities; activities that involved sexual harassment; and ngoen run (seniors collect money from freshmen for college activities). Many activities involved older students exercising authority over younger ones like: phi wak (seniors shouting at disobedient newcomers); phi rabiap (seniors playing the role of disciplinarians); phi nian (seniors playing tricks by infiltrating themselves among freshmen); etc.

Most of these activities reinforce SOTUS values, authoritarian culture and a dictatorial society.  It is just another exercise in using power to oppress people, a promotion of authoritarian values contrary to liberalism and progressive thought.

Rapnong is a part of SOTUS. SOTUS is a part of authoritarianism and dictatorship. These last two are contrary to liberal democracy and human rights. SOTUS values and democracy do not go together. It is not logical for people to say that they love democracy but support SOTUS.

Common features of SOTUS and Dictatorship

From the above definitions of both words, the reader may already have formed an idea of how SOTUS is related to dictatorship. To make things clearer, I would like to point out the shared elements of SOTUS and dictatorship so that the reader can better understand the argument “SOTUS is Dictatorship”. Look at the two pictures above. Do you see any similarities?

SOTUS is about implanting a kind of ideology. It is used to instil students with militaristic beliefs - respect for superiors, obedience, adherence to cultural dictates, solidarity, and personal sacrifice - the very values the dictatorship uses to govern people under its control. In SOTUS, we have oppressors and the oppressed. Some people take on the role of oppressors, perhaps because they believe in SOTUS and are just not aware of how oppressive it is. Or they might take pleasure in extracting revenge for what they have suffered in the past. Some people benefit from this culture. It creates a hierarchy of tension between age groups, allowing seniors to manipulate juniors.

We all know appeals to the authority of experience - the assertion that “I am older than you and have been through ‘a lot’ of things, so you must listen to me because the world outside is cruel.” Seniors use this kind of argument to subjugate initiates in the hope that it will create solidarity among freshmen. But these seniors are just one or two years older than you, right? So how much experience have they actually had? The oppression of SOTUS does not just stay inside education. The SOTUS culture of oppression graduates to the workplace and society as well. Like dictatorship, it aims to eradicate political pluralism to facilitate the manipulation of people and resources. Eliminating diversity, the homogenisation of society, is a significant mechanism of authoritarianism. Conversely, people who stand against the inculcation of SOTUS values are defending political pluralism. I am arguing that SOTUS is actually about politics.  Not everyone is aware of this. 

Why are people drawn to authoritarianism? There have been some experiments - the Milgram Experiment in 1961 and the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 - to answer the question why people turn evil and become addicted to authoritarian power like SOTUS.

At a public lecture in 2018, Assistant Professor Parinya Thewanarumitkun, Ph.D., identified the connection between SOTUS values, social psychology, and the influences of evil and fear on human nature..  SOTUS also uses peer pressure to eliminate rebels, using threats of punishment or the withdrawal of friendship to instil group solidarity.

This is just how dictatorship works - using the threat of force to suppress citizens who are controlled with passive fear and romanticised dilemmas. Collective punishment works in real life and can be explained psychologically. Unity and spirit are central to military training. To promote discipline (thamrong winai), newcomers are bullied or punished. They are then instilled with SOTUS values. Unity, order, and tradition are central to fascist movements. Once a person appreciates these values, they will most likely accept and internalise them, passing belief on to the next generation or cohort. Minorities who oppose SOTUS will have to survive the tyranny of dictatorship culture.

In academic settings, it is not easy for students who oppose Thai-style hazing and SOTUS values to fight back. It is worse if they are marginalised by professors as well as seniors. Just as dictators prolong their political power, the sadistic cycle of SOTUS continues to be enforced.  

I think that Thai politics, with its never-ending cycle of military governments, continues to oppress people in the same way that SOTUS survives in rites of passage, endlessly and imperceptibly. This is not an overstatement. It is just hard to imagine that some of us see abusive powers as normal.

A colleague in the ANTI SOTUS struggle, Bannagorn Jantaratin or Nai Chat Sangkhom (Mister Nation and Society) said in his book that SOTUS values are militaristic. No matter how hard military training is, they tell you you have to do it for the nation. And no matter how hard the Cheer Room is, they say you must endure it for the sake of your “run” (cohort). These values are used to indoctrinate initiates and destroy their intellectual capacity.  They are turned into followers. SOTUS makes people cowardly and stupid, as noted by Thai Historian Thongchai Winichakul. It is extremely helpful if a ruler wants to control the population. 

In 2018, ANTI SOTUS, a human rights watchdog and student advocacy group, organized a public forum against SOTUS culture and hazing practices. I led a discussion on the topic “Does SOTUS Build or Impede the Nation?” It began with an informative lecture by Dr. Parinya on social psychology’s explanation of SOTUS and abusive powers. The second part was a debate between four political parties, both conservative and progressive. Pannika ‘Chor’ Wanich, then a representative of the Future Forward Party, stated that , “For me, SOTUS is not a neutral concept. SOTUS is a Nazi concept. A concept of dictators. … As long as ivory does not grow in a dog’s mouth, democracy does not grow from the barrel of a gun, democracy does not grow out of SOTUS.” This statement supports my argument: SOTUS values are linked  to dictatorship and do not fit with democracy.

From SOTUS Culture to Thai Dictatorship

When we recognise that SOTUS values and authoritarianism are tied together, we can see more clearly the effect of SOTUS on Thai politics and everyday life. It allows us to connect the dots and answer the question of why democracy has yet to grow in Thai society.

Take seniority culture. To live happily here, you need to learn to respect elders. There is nothing wrong with respecting someone for a good a reason but authority should not always be deferred to. There is a difference between respect and obedience. SOTUS legitimises obedience; it implies that you need to listen to and obey the commands of older people or run phi (seniors) in order to become a good and prosperous person. Adherence to seniority culture in the workplace is likely to make your career path more secure, peaceful, and prosperous. At least seniority  benefits some people.

It fosters a culture of silence and fear. You succumb and obey without questioning. This kind of culture is widespread in the collectivist societies of Asia.

It works for those at the top. When you need people to respect you, you may need to make them fear you. The more you are feared, the more you will be respected. Holding power through fear can be very useful for controlling people.

It is the same in Thai school settings. Teachers govern students through obsolete rules on hair, punctuality, and behaviour. Young people hesitate to question adults or elders. They are passively brainwashed. Their critical thinking skills get degraded. People discourage them from speaking up or challenging traditions. SOTUS values govern Thai education, intimidate students and prevent them from opposing, questioning, or fighting back.

And then there is patronage culture. This is not just about SOTUS values alone but also how we are instructed and bond in society as well. Have you ever wondered what Thai people mean when they say, “university education matters”? They mean that your connections with fellow alumni matter. You need them as a gateway to success.

It is favoritism. Suppose your senior, now an HR manager, sees your name on a list of applicants for a job at company. The HR manager may hire you on the basis of your relationship, not your qualifications. Thai people call this Colour Culture, a slang term for patronage. “Colour” affects critical HR decisions at all levels. It leads to a cycle of corruption (which I think we can see clearly in Thai politics right now, where the military is running the administration). Not all HR departments support this but patronage is still a part of our daily news (see, for example here, and here, or here).

In the end, are you aware of this delusion of dictators?

In an essay, Thongchai Winichakul said that the values SOTUS helps to reproduce are a serious cause of the malaise and social ills that permeate major social institutions in Thailand.”  I hope readers now recognise the links between SOTUS culture and dictatorship, that SOTUS is the cultural foundation of authoritarianism and consequently ensures the failure of Thai politics and society. I know that this kind of writing may not help much, but I hope that this article might provide a spark of encouragement to people to fight against SOTUS.

If you look on social media, you’ll see that many students have started to oppose and call for the abolition of the university SOTUS system. Many students are no longer silent. In many universities, student committees have declared that SOTUS is an activity of dictatorship and against the democratic form of governance. I am not sure if this is thanks to globalisation and a wave of democracy. In any event, I am delighted that things are better than in my day. I experienced being tortured by this system; the trauma of being bullied and tortured remains in my mind. I am glad that at least some people can escape from the Matrix and be liberated.

Maybe one day in the future, there will be no more victims of SOTUS or dictatorship. This will only happen when freshmen, seniors, and those who participate in SOTUS, both oppressor and oppressed, become aware of human rights. This is why I remain anti SOTUS

Because SOTUS is a dictatorship in disguise.

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


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