Chula Walks Back Censure of Lecturer Who Assaulted Student

Chulalongkorn University professor Ruengwit Bunjongrat holds fourth-year student Supalak Damrongjit in a headlock on Aug. 4, 2017, at a university initiation ceremony held on campus. Photo: Netiwit Chotiphatchaisal

BANGKOK — Chulalongkorn University on Monday acknowledged toning down a statement which had previously condemned a lecturer for putting a student in a headlock last month.

Saying the statement hadn’t been properly vetted, officials said stronger language about the “shameful” actions of Ruengwit Bunjongrat, a professor and administrator, was removed after it was originally published.

“We published it on the website without careful deliberation,” Supawan Pipitsombat, a university spokeswoman said by phone. “It was the fault of our team.”

The statement was published last week after student activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal was removed from his position as student president last month. The university explained why Netiwit, who campaigns for student freedom, had to be punished for causing a scene at last month’s initiation ritual, which involved paying respect to statues of two late kings.

The story attracted widespread media coverage because a senior lecturer assaulted one of Netiwit’s student council peers as he was trying to leave the ceremony. Netiwit said he believes the university toned down the statement after lobbying by professors.

The statement was first published Sept. 4 on the university’s website in Thai and English. It justified the school’s action against Netiwit, who was elected to head the student governing body in May, intended to disrupt the ceremony by staging a walkout.

The original version criticized Ruengwit for having “lost his temper” in a “shameful episode for the university” that “ bears no relevance to the university’s policy.”

The revised statement describes his actions as “regrettable” and notes that Ruengwit, a botany instructor, has stepped down from his position as assistant to the president of student affairs.

Officials also softened a paragraph which took a jab at Western media for being intolerant of the university’s royal heritage.

“Our university has a long history and a royal lineage that are imbued in our tradition and beliefs that may be uncommon to western liberal values,” the original English version said. “Much that we support liberalism and freedom of expression, we also have our cultural roots and harmony to balance. We do not ask that western media approve our decision and approach in this matter but we would appreciate understanding and sensitivity to our standing which also represents difference and diversity that is much valued in the West.”

The oath-pledging ceremony for the incoming freshman class at the nation’s oldest university was introduced in 1997. The university said in the statement that participation was voluntary.

The revised statement noted it had been revised without explanation.

Vice rector Pirongrong Ramasoota said the university had no intention to hide the changes.

“We already indicated on the website there were changes,” Pirongrong said by phone. “We weren’t hiding anything. We made it clear.”

Pirongrong said she didn’t know who ordered the changes and referred questions to the university’s communications team.

The communication official, Supawan, said her team later decided the language about Ruengwit was too strong, and the head of her team approved the changes.

“The lecturer is still under investigation and it is not right to judge him at the moment,” Supawan said. “The statement was too harsh.”

‘Internal Politics’

It is unclear whether Chulalongkorn administration had any role in the changes.

When a reporter first contacted Supawan’s department, an official said the changes were instructed by some university administrators. In a follow-up conversation less than an hour later, she said she was unaware of any instructions from college directors to alter the statement.

Supawan also said the part that called out foreign media was removed to avoid conflict.

Netiwit – whose walkout cost him his student presidency – said he was surprised to discover the statement was altered. The activist said he suspected interference from “internal politics.”

“The university condemned that lecturer to show the public that it was fair,” Netiwit wrote in reply to an inquiry. “But it might have interference of internal politics among the lecturers and other influences. Because by writing it like that, it wasn’t good for the lecturer. The university might be forced to find him guilty because it wrote the statement like that.”

Netiwit had pledged to contest the university’s decision to oust him from the student council.

It’s the second time Chulalongkorn University has walked back public statements on the controversy. Four days after the Aug. 4 ceremony, it retracted a statement condemning Netiwit that was riddled with inaccuracies.

Related stories:

Initiation Walkout Costs Netiwit Student Presidency