Shameful behaviour of Chulalongkorn University Staff reflects state of Thai society

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Last week a disgraceful incident occurred at my old university where I used to teach. Assistant Professor Ruangwit Banjongrut, who was in charge of student affairs, head locked a student representative and dragged him off, pulling his hair. At the same time he was heard to shout obscenities at another student. Ruangwit was part of Sutep’s anti-democracy mob before the latest coup.

All this happened because the elected student representatives decided to walk out early from an open air induction ceremony as it had started to rain. Previous to this incident the student representatives had sought agreement with teaching staff that the event would be cut short if it started to rain.

Those teaching staff who were there, including Ruangwit, committed gross violations of teaching codes of practice. There was physical violence used against a student, obscenities were used, and these teaching staff also forced hundreds of first year students to stay out in the rain, thus failing in their duty of care to the students.

So what was this induction ceremony? It was a ceremony where hundreds of new students are forced to prostrate themselves in front of a statue of two kings: king Chulalongkorn (Rama 5) and king Wachirawut (Rama 6).

Apart from having a role in the founding of the university, these two kings have a disgusting past. Chulalongkorn kept a harem with hundreds of women and had 3 “queens” who were half-sisters. When one of them drowned, no one dared to help because to touch the property of the king was a capital crime. Chulalongkorn modernised Thailand, but this was done to increase his power to become an absolute monarch. The freeing of slaves was also done to lower the price of hiring labour.

Wachirawut loved his dog more than the people and he ordered that a statue be built to honour the mutt. After his death it was observed that he had generally been hated and that he had spent so much money on himself that the finances of the nation were in trouble. On the plus side this awful legacy helped to spark the 1932 revolution against the next king at a time when Thailand was sucked into the world economic crisis.

Anyone looking at the behaviour of these two kings will be reminded of the present new king of Thailand.

Forcing students to grovel in front of these statues distorts history and is aimed at maintaining a respect for authority and dictatorship.

When I became a lecturer at Chula I was forced to go to an induction session. I avoided the grovelling part but I had to sit through a session where the speaker made fun of my Thai and English name and gave us tips on psychology, claiming that thin people were bad-tempered and fat people were jolly!

Many young lecturers at Chula lord it over the students in order to cover up for their own inadequacies. They are just “baby generals” who shout at and abuse students about not wearing their uniforms properly or other meaningless things. At the Faculty of Political Science, where I once taught, these baby generals were dead against teaching students to write argumentative essays and to hold their own opinions.

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Eventually the authorities at Chula started a process which ended with me being charged with lèse-majesté. I had written the book, “A Coup for the Rich”, which criticised the 2006 military coup. They gave the book to the police Special Branch.

Despite all this it is important not to see Chulalongkorn University as merely a conservative institution. The famous left-wing radical Jit Pumisak, who later became a communist fighter, once studied at Chula. After 1973 Chula students set up a socialist group and many of them joined the communist party in the jungle after 1976. Twenty years ago, I and another lecturer were involved in starting a Marxism courses for students. These were the only Marxism courses in the country. Finally, this year the Chula students elected a radical team to become their representatives.

Chulalongkorn University reflects the state of Thai society, with those in power being dictatorial and brutish, the institution being steeped in class inequality, and with revolts from below by those who want freedom and democracy.

News Update:

Chulalongkorn University is trying to press disciplinary charges against Netiwit and other students while the lecturer who abused and assaulted the students enjoys impunity.

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