Students are in turmoil after a top Thai institution said it would remove its student union president for inviting anti-monarchy speakers to one of its events.
A year ago, 25-year-old Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal won the presidency of his student union in a landslide victory, garnering more than 10,000 votes out of an estimated 14,000. Today, Chulalongkorn University, the most former institution of higher education in Thailand, forced him to leave his post.
The decision has prompted statements of support for the student union leader from dozens of Thai student groups, but the issue itself goes beyond campuses. It illustrates a growing rift across the country between its conservative elite and the younger generation, recently emboldened to dissent.
Thailand has seen upheaval as recently as 2014, when its military overthrew an elected government for the second time in a decade. In the years that followed, students became an active presence in politics, organizing mass protests against the Thai monarchy and military. But academia – and society – has been slower to change.
In July 2021, Mr. Chotiphatphaisal invited Thai activists to speak at an online orientation for freshmen, and one of them made an obscene hand gesture at the administrators. The gesture and the choice of the speakers were not well received.
The university says Mr Chotiphatphaisal disrespected Thai culture, but he stood by that decision. “When you think of the first year [induction] ceremonies in Thailand, you think of old people saying things about nostalgia and their own college years, or something that’s not very relevant to student life,” he said.
This is not the first time he has courted controversy. In 2017, while a freshman himself, he was removed from his role as student council president after leading an eight-student walkout of the college event where learners typically bow to the statue of King Rama V of Thailand – a move that made headlines across the country.
Mr. Chotiphatphaisal still bristled at the “humiliation of prostrating himself” before the king. “We mean he’s also human, not some celestial being that you can’t criticize,” he said.
But these moves have not earned him popularity with those in the university administration, who are preparing to deduct his merit points. In a system that dates back to the 1980s, every Thai student receives an allocation of points when they enter university; points can be deducted for a variety of infractions, ranging from violating the dress code to disrespecting professors. Students need more than 80 points to hold a position.
Although the administration may succeed in removing the head of the outspoken student union, Mr Chotiphatphaisal and his supporters said the move cast a bad image on the university.
An administrator who spoke with Times Higher Education on condition of anonymity, said the university’s actions exposed its “true stance” on free speech, which “runs counter to its efforts to become one of the world’s leading universities” .
“Furthermore, it demonstrates that administrators are falling far behind students’ expectations and worldview,” they said, adding that since the 2014 coup, the university has banned all political and academic academic panels. student activities.
“Administrators should stay out of student affairs and focus on promoting academic quality. The only thing a university should do for its students is to provide them with knowledge and a learning environment,” the administrator said.
As for Mr. Chotiphatphaisal, he may be retiring, but he is not ready to leave quietly.
“Although I am no longer in the office…I still fully support many types of freedom of expression, including freedom to disagree, freedom to satire, and freedom to offend, [including] giving [them the] middle finger,” he said.