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Student's death ignites debate about hazing at Thai colleges

Sporadic nationwide attention in the wake of tragedies has done little to eliminate dangerous rituals at schools

Student's death ignites debate about hazing at Thai colleges

Freshmen from a university in Thailand are ordered by senior students to do exercises during an outing to a beach in 2019. (Photo: Anti-SOTUS Facebook page)

Published: June 23, 2021 06:59 AM GMT

Updated: June 23, 2021 07:00 AM GMT

Veeraphan Tamklang, 22, a student of civil engineering at Rajamangala University of Technology in central Bangkok, arrived at his school hale and hearty on May 27.

Shortly thereafter, he was carried out unconscious and died two days later of pulmonary embolism.

A dozen fellow students have since confessed to subjecting Veeraphan to a hazing ritual, which police say likely claimed his life.

Veeraphan’s death, which is only the latest in a series of student fatalities at Thai colleges and universities in recent years, has reignited a debate about the country’s regimented and autocratic educational culture in which juniors are expected to be at the beck and call of seniors.

Critics say that hazing and other forms of institutionalized repression remain widespread at Thai schools as part of an initiation ceremony called the SOTUS (Seniority, Order, Tradition, Unity and Spirit) tradition, whose stated aim is to teach students to be obedient to their seniors and be respectful to their educational institutions.

During hazing rituals, students, usually freshmen, are forced to perform physically exacting tasks that could endanger their health and even result in death.

If you still complain, other students will cold-shoulder you

“If you don’t comply [with their orders], they [your seniors] will punish you. They force you to wear shoes with extra-high heels in school every day, which makes it hard to walk. They do things like that,” Peerada Nuruk, a young woman who recently graduated from a university in eastern Thailand and has been an outspoken critic of SOTUS, told UCA News.

“If you still complain, other students will cold-shoulder you. Some of my classmates hated me for not joining in the activities in first year.” 

Although hazing often turns into outright bullying and at times overt sadism, most teachers and school administrators turn a blind eye to this widespread practice, according to anti-SOTUS activists who run a popular Facebook page where they document instances of hazing from across Thailand based on testimonials from victims.

“SOTUS is a system within a system,” says Rattapoom Kotchapong, a schoolteacher who works as a tutor in Bangkok and is an opponent of hazing and other humiliating practices at schools.

“From an early age, Thai children are taught to be blindly obedient. Then as they get older they mimic the adult society around them. But this hurts my students and it hurts their ability to grow as people.” 

Although it is usually male students who are required by their seniors to “prove” their worth by enduring overly strenuous exercises such as doing endless push-ups to the point of collapse, female students, too, have fallen victim to being hazed mercilessly.

One day last August, Pornpiphat Eaddam, a 19-year-old student at a university on the southern island of Phuket, was instructed by her seniors to run eight times around campus in the muggy evening heat during a training session with her university’s cheerleading team.

The run was a punishment for eight mistakes she had made during cheerleading practice, according to her seniors.

Pornpiphat collapsed after the sixth round and was taken unconscious on a motorcycle to a hospital where she was admitted to its intensive care unit in a state of shock. Despite receiving medical care, she died of heart failure.

Her death made headlines across Thailand, but sporadic nationwide attention in the wake of tragedies has done little to eliminate hazing at schools, insiders say.

What hope do we have for democratic culture in Thailand when what is nurtured is for people to obey without question?

“There are deaths from hazing every year, but nothing has really been done to stop this practice,” a fourth-year engineering student at a university in Bangkok who asked not to be named told UCA News.

“Even I was in favor of it because I thought it was fun and part of school tradition. But now I know it’s a horrible practice.” 

Traditions such as hazing and an emphasis on seniority are the result of a military-style indoctrination campaign over the decades that has sought to make young Thais submissive and obedient, prominent social critics say.

“This perennial [custom] of brutality, masquerading as a proud tradition, will certainly claim more lives in the future. Besides more needless deaths, such a practice inculcates a deep-rooted autocratic culture and culture of violence,” argues Pravit Rojanaphruk, a leading Thai journalist and social commentator.

“It is similar to hazing within the armed forces faced by some mandatory military conscripts, particularly in the army, where young people are coerced to follow instructions, no matter how senseless, or face corporal punishment.

“What hope do we have for democratic culture in Thailand when what is nurtured is for people to obey without question? Democratic culture has to be nurtured and it cannot survive when many people prefer an autocratic culture which passes off tradition as necessary discipline.” 

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