BANGKOK — Every year freshmen in crisp uniforms press together on the campus of Chulalongkorn University. As one, thousands lower their heads to the ground in respect to statues of kings Rama V and VI in a swearing-in ceremony treated as a sacred ritual.
Except this year. On a Friday morning two months ago, a gangly political science freshman made a spectacle by refusing to prostrate to the kings’ statues. He and a friend just walked out, mid-ceremony, saying he was right by history – and one of the kings in question.
“Rama V himself cancelled the tradition of prostration,” Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal said in a recent interview. “Therefore, it’s illogical to continue to do it unthinkingly just because it’s become a norm.”
With that symbolic act, Netiwit put his peers and the institution billed as “pillar of the kingdom” on notice – he would respect the rules while throwing hammers at its customs and presumptions. For defying expectations students should be deferential and obedient, Netiwit has become both famous and infamous. Some admire his compulsion to stir thought; others complain he is an iconoclast unconcerned with their cherished values.
An interview was just beginning between classes Tuesday in his faculty’s library when, seemingly at mention of his name, library staff grew visibly uncomfortable and asked a reporter to take it elsewhere.
Sitting down on a bench outside, the 20-year-old from Samut Prakan donned his signature red glasses and clasped his hands at attention, laser-focused, to talk about that first provocative act of his university life.
“I had been thinking about not performing the swearing-in ceremony for a while, because I didn’t agree with it,” he said. “However, I also knew that I couldn’t just complain online and do nothing. I needed to incite thought.”
Even before that morning in July, Netiwit was going after the education system’s conventions. He organized “schoolyard protests” against mandatory uniforms, standing for the national anthem, and prostrating to teachers. He founded activist reform group Education for the Liberation of Siam, declared himself a “conscientious objector” to refuse mandatory conscription at 18 and spoke out on hot-button issues, winning attention from social and traditional media.
“I want there to be more of a space in Thai society and schooling for young people: The school shouldn’t just be a place to prostrate and take tests,” he said.
For all his contrarian positions, Netiwit defies assumptions he’s some angry keyboard warrior. Instead, he comes across as a shy young man. Some might see a nerd.
“I’m not actually a rebel. I have no problem with following rules, both at school and university,” he said.
It’s when those rules exist only for their own sake and are backed by some threat of force that he reflexively balks.
“I can prostrate if you really want me to, but don’t make it an enforced thing,” he said.
‘I’m not actually a rebel. I have no problem with following rules, both at school and university’
That’s when he pulls from his orange-and-navy backpack, “Degenerate Student in a Wonderful Education System,” a collection of letters he wrote to his former school. Most oppose things such as using haircuts as a disciplinary measure or requiring students donate to build a statue.
He hopes to have it translated into English. He says that it’s the first book in many years about the educational system’s problems and believes English is important to reaching a wider audience. He’s not trying to embarrass anyone, he said, just help bring about a greater good.
“There is a ceiling of authoritarianism in Thai schools. The focus is on the teachers and the power they wield, as well as on visible material resources,” he said. “Schools like to show off new computers, expensive gyms, and farang teachers to upgrade the school’s image.”
Decrying the state of English-language learning, he complained some schools “hire farang teachers as decoration” to charge higher tuition, with the students in on the joke and unlikely to take them seriously.
Aware he was being interviewed for an English-language audience, Netiwit took the chance to call on those teachers to push for improvement, saying they as a base could make a “substantial push” in changing the education system.
“If you claim that you love Thailand, please help express vocally what’s wrong with the system,” he said. “The more the better. Together, we can work together for change.”
He credits his English not to Thai schools but friendly debates with Buddhists from other countries during a seven-month stay at the Deer Park Institute in India. He also decided there that learning could and should be fun.
Asked why he chose Chulalongkorn, an institution associated with conservative values over the historically liberal Thammasat University, Netiwit said that was the point. He didn’t only want to be around like-minded peers, and said conservative and progressive elements are found everywhere, regardless of the stereotypes.
“It’s not as conservative as they say,” he said of Chulalongkorn.
Still, Chula is home to more than its share of sacred cows, making it a target-rich environment for someone looking to bludgeon them.
Since July’s initiation episode, he’s spoken out against the hazing rituals called rub nong. He was motivated after a number of fine arts students fainted this year during hong cheer, an activity in which upperclassmen encourage or coerce freshmen to attend day-long activities involving songs and games.
On Aug. 27 he posted an audio clip of seniors harassing their junior students, which led to the faculty canceling the event – and much shade thrown at Netiwit – until freshmen petitioned for it to be reinstated, albeit with better treatment from the upperclassmen.
‘You have to learn how to do so in school in order to properly show that you’re Thai’
That gets at the grievances he’s aroused in some of his classmates.
Netiwit’s detractors call him out for being a social aberration and disruptive rebel out to destroy Thai culture and customs. They say his words and actions amount to a reckless boy’s desire to be famous and a trending social media topic.
“He’s just a kid,” said Krittamet Kumlue, a third year engineering student and member of the university and national swimming teams. “And sometimes rules just need to be followed. When I was 15, I also didn’t want to shave my head. If you can’t even cut your hair like you’re asked to, what about when you go into the workforce? Are you going to rebel against wearing ID cards as well?”
Krittamet said things such as singing the anthem Netiwit so decries are necessary displays of national identity.
“On the international stage, Thai athletes stand up and sing the Thai anthem when we win a medal,” he said. “You have to learn how to do so in school in order to properly show that you’re Thai.”
The swimmer, however, doesn’t agree with the nasty comments that openly appear on Netiwit’s Facebook page.
“Verbal abuse is not a good solution; it’s better to warn the kid. He should realize too, that society isn’t exactly as it appears from his point of view,” he said.
For his part, Netiwit said he is prepared for the attacks and isn’t discouraged by them.
But he’s also totally fired up now, having reached the topic of social change and his role.
“It’s everyone’s job to help fight for it. Individual bravery is important, but collective action is necessary,” he said. “I’ll admit that I’ve made some strategic mistakes of looking too independent in my actions.”
Whatever he’s done, there are also many cheering him on.
Worada Elstow, who graduated with a degree in French, views Netiwit as beneficial yet bitter medicine for Thai society.
“His ways of expressing his ideas may be crude and even radical, but they are necessary questions that someone needs to ask, just to open up the coconut shell that we’re all hiding under,” she said, referring to a common metaphor for Thailand’s insularism.
She said his walk-out during the swearing-in ceremony was impressive and empowering.
“This symbolic act of rebellion challenges so many conventional ideas at Chula and in Thai society,” she said. While others accuse him of destroying tradition, Worada said it cannot be destroyed, only set aside if people find no more use for it.
In true activist-nerd fashion, Netiwit was sure to plug his next act, possibly the only semi-formal recognition of the 40th anniversary of the 1976 massacre of Thammasat and Chulalongkorn university students by ultra-royalists and state security forces.
He’s excited that Oct 6: Chula Folks Look Into the Future, a seminar arranged by more than 50 other freshmen, has drawn Round Finger, a writer popular with youth; John Winyu, the devilish face of satire of “Shallow News in Depth” on YouTube; and Joshua Wong, the kindred spirit who emerged as a leader of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. More than 1,000 students have registered to attend.
“I invited [Joshua] personally,” Netiwit said with a touch of pride and a smile. He starts to brag about the registration numbers before reverting to that laser-focus guise he wears when delivering the fire on society.
“Thai society is thirsting for new thoughts and ideas because society and government closes opportunities for such,” he said.
Soon after, a fan stops by and asks to take a photo with him in front of the political science department’s sign. Netiwit shyly complies, then runs off to class.
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