Prayut’s little toy soldiers in Thai universities

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Every year, with each intake of new students to Thai universities, the “SOTUS” system rears its ugly head. SOTUS stands for “Seniority, Order, Tradition, Unity, Spirit”, qualities which would warm the cockles of Generalissimo Prayut’s heart. It is a system of “hazing” based on cruelty, torture, de-humanisation and abuse of power by senior students against first years. It originates in the worst institutions of the U.S.A. and may have come to Thailand via the Philippines.

Recently a young lecturer at Mahasarakarm University spoke out about these abuses and was inundated with violent and sexist threats from various people, the worst coming from an ex-student. Fortunately, it became a national issue and more progressive students from her university rallied round to support her. Yet so long as armed thugs in uniform control Thai society and demand and enforce “Seniority, Order, Tradition, Unity, Spirit” via coup d’états and draconian laws like lèse-majesté, the system will remain in place.

Not only will it remain in place because of the climate of authoritarian rule, but it is also reinforced by petty-minded senior students who get their kicks from bossing younger people around. Shockingly it is also reinforced by many members of staff in universities who seem to feel that they have an interest in maintaining this brutal nonsense. Usually it is lecturers who have been through the SOTUS system themselves and are now teaching in the same universities where they were students. These staff will dock “behaviour points” from students who refuse to take part in the hazing activities.

When I wrote an article in a Thai daily newspaper attacking the SOTUS system back in 2002, I also received much abuse, although not on a level experienced by Lalita Harnwong, the Mahasarakarm lecturer.

Back in 2002, I was teaching at Chulalongkorn University and in the late afternoons, as I walked to catch public transport home, I would hear noises similar to those emitted by wild animals or hooligans coming from locked class rooms where first year students were imprisoned in unbearable heat. The air-conditioning was turned off and they were being subjected to shouts and abuse by seniors. Each day for weeks this would happen. Outside, around the flag pole, groups of male seniors would often be seen bullying individual young female students, ordering them to run backwards and forwards, sit down or stand up. All the new students were forced to learn the stupid university and faculty songs. Any student who refused to take part would be ostracised. Threats were made that their future career progressions after graduating would be blocked by the “old boys’ network”.

On one occasion, one of my lectures ran 15 minutes over time and my students were then subjected to punishment for arriving late for torture sessions by the self-appointed senior “toy soldiers”, fresh out of nappies, who were running the hazing. These seniors never turned up to lectures on time.

One ridiculous argument in favour of the SOTUS system is that it is supposed to encourage team spirit and unity. But it is a unity defined by oppressors and based on coercion and brutality. It involves breaking the spirit of young people. It is more like turning the new intake of students into a “herd” of mindless sub-humans. It is very closely related to the kind of military training that turns conscripts into unquestioning and cold-blooded murderers.

If the school education system has not already destroyed all individuality, originality, confidence, imagination or any love of enquiry among students, the SOTUS system is designed to finish the job. University students in Thailand are forced to wear “school uniforms”. Women must not wear trousers and anyone in flip flops is banned from libraries. It is as though the university authorities want to do everything except ensure that young people receive a decent education. What a great advertisement for the quality of Thai universities!

The good news is that there is a long tradition of struggle against SOTUS among progressive students. In the 1970s, when huge waves of radicalisation swept through universities and schools throughout the world, and Thai students over threw the military dictatorship of the time, SOTUS disappeared. It returned with a vengeance when the brutal reaction against democracy occurred in the late 1970s, early 1980s.

Today there are signs of resistance too. Not only do we have young lecturers speaking out, we also have the student protests against the junta. The secondary school student, who dared to stand up and ask Prayut a question about education, is a prime example. He was immediately bundled out of the room, but his message was spread by social media and some mainstream media. Prit Chiwaruk asked why Thai students were not allowed to study philosophy and ethics so that they could think for themselves. He decried the fact that schools force-fed “the duty of citizens” to all pupils instead.

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