BANGKOK — Student activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a strident opponent of military rule, expected a fuss when he was elected student council president of Chulalongkorn University, a bastion of the conservative establishment.
After all, he is vehemently opposed to the ruling junta and became famous as a freshman last year for opposing the university’s ritual of crawling to and prostrating before the eponymous statue of King Chulalongkorn, or Rama V, whose son and successor founded the institution a century ago.
But he didn’t expect the leader of the junta himself to spare no time verbally attacking him. Without naming the 20-year-old political science student, Prayuth Chan-ocha made clear his opinion that Netiwit’s election was a “disgrace,” elevating what was a minor controversy into a full-blown political spectacle even the provocative Netiwit wasn’t expecting.
It was at Mahidol University’s Salaya Campus in Nakhon Prathom province on Friday, a day after Netiwit was elected, that Prayuth, who serves as prime minister, made his comments in a speech on higher education.
“[Students] must know how to think and coexist. I leave this with you, the president of the student council. Extreme thinking is not okay. … It’s a pity and I am concerned. It’s a disgrace to the institution.”
He added that people who are not happy with Thailand should live elsewhere. “Good history is our pride. Please preserve it,” he said.
His comments were interpreted by many, including Netiwit, as an attack on the newly elected Chulalongkorn student president.
Netiwit, who has more than 40,000 followers on Facebook, quickly fired back on that platform, saying it is Prayuth who is the disgrace.
“Who is a disgrace to the nation?… If you want to play politics then set up a political party. But he played outside the rules, staged a coup, seized power. Not only that, he continues to curb other people’s rights. To me and many younger generations, His Excellency the Prime Minister has been destroying the reputation of Thailand for the past three years.”
The post garnered 16,000 likes by Monday and was shared 2,700 times. It also launched a social media battle between pro- and anti-coup elements.
Asked why he thought Prayuth lashed out at him, Netiwit said Sunday that it’s the retired general’s compulsive behavior.
“On the level of personal psychology, deep down, Prayuth must feel that he has no legitimacy. So when he thinks of me, he doesn’t like it. That’s his psychological issue.”
Then there’s Netiwit’s observations on society’s expectations for its youth.
“The young are expected to obey and behave like him,” Netiwit said. “The young must docilely stick to the system, and this is what Prayuth likes. … The whole society is a reflection of Prayuth.”
As president, Netiwit said he would push forward with attempts to make crawling and prostrating to the statues optional. He proposes students be allowed to opt out entirely or stand and bow as he did as an incoming freshman when he argued that it was King Chulalongkorn who abolished groveling.
Current controversies aside, Netiwit said he plans to address the controversial issue of hard-handed and coercive freshman initiation rites. He said he will try to get all faculties to commit to not allow things beyond reasonable bounds, such as the various forms of physical and mental abuse which are often inflicted upon freshmen by their seniors.
“Students should have the right to partake or not partake in such rituals,” he said.
The son of a Thai-Chinese middle class family which runs a vegetarian eatery and grocery store in southern metro Bangkok, Netiwit said he has the cautious support of his parents.The political science student, who’s a protege of eminent social critic Sulak Sivaraksa, said those who oppose his position on the council may try to launch a censure debate to oust him. A third of the council could launch such a motion and propose a no-confidence vote. Netiwit said he will be prepared for it.
Netiwit said he wants to change the mindset of his peers who all politics are dirty or only reserved for those with power.
As for his many social media “fans” who used him as a proxy to rage against the junta in recent days, Netiwit said he knows Thailand is yearning for a hero, but believes it would be wrong to pin hope on him alone.
“If you think of me as a leader and placed all hope in me and do nothing, then that’s failure,” he said.