By Estafan Naranode
At the start of the school year in mid-August, a Khaosod English correspondent visited three universities in Thailand’s war-torn Deep South to observe their take on “rub nong,” the controversial freshman hazing rituals conducted in many schools across the Kingdom.
SONGKHLA — It is late afternoon at the start of a new school year at Rajabhat Songkhla University in the southern province of Songkhla.
Several dozen freshmen boys, all ‘politely’ dressed in white shirts and black trousers, stand shoulder-to-shoulder just inside the school’s main entrance as cars and motorbikes stream past.
Surrounding them is a group of about ten slightly older males, most of them dressed in what appears to be dark, paramilitary-looking gear. Some are wearing black caps, turned backwards, that read ‘POLICE.’
Suddenly a whistle screeches and the boys haggardly drop to the ground.
“Faster! Faster! Stay down! Hands behind your backs!” one of the seniors screams.
The freshmen do as they are told. They lower themselves onto the dirty concrete ground, hands behind their back, as if preparing to be handcuffed.
They remain motionless, their backs arched like orca whales on display at Sea World in order to keep their faces off the hot concrete. They wait for the next command.
It comes about a minute later. “Stand Up! Quickly! Hurry Up!” They freshmen rise to their feet – some with quite a bit of difficulty, indicating that this has been going on for some time.
When Khaosod English asked to take a group picture, one of the seniors screamed: “Group picture! All fall in immediately!” The ‘freshies,’ as they are known in university campuses across Thailand, were quick to comply.
The drill was part of the Thai university tradition known as rub nong, which translates to ‘welcoming our young brothers and sisters.’
Although hazing freshmen is considered a cultural import from the United States, the practice has morphed into something uniquely Thai since its introduction to the Kingdom in the 1970s.
In the West, the decision to join a fraternity or sorority – and thus expose oneself to the intimidating initiation process – is optional. But in Thailand, the initiations are conducted by upperclassmen studying the same academic major; as a result, every freshman is considered “fresh meat” and refusal to take part in the initiation rites is tantamount to social suicide on most campuses.
Hazing traditions and the severity of the rituals vary from school to school and faculty to faculty, but the common thread – and ultimate justification for the rituals – is spelled out by an English-language acronym: SOTUS.
In the United States, SOTUS stands for ‘State Of The Union Address,’ the annual speech made by the President before congress. But in Thailand, it stands for Seniority, Order, Tradition, Unity and Spirit — the values rub nong is ostensibly meant to instill.
Yet the initiation rituals, which can involve alchohol and physical abuse, are known to get out of hand. This August, one student drowned during a weekend of hazing on a beach in Prachuap Kiri Khan. In July 2008, a student at Uthenthawai University died after he was reportedly beaten by a group of senior students during a rub nong ritual.
Both Rajabhat Songkhla University (RSKU) and its neighbor, Thaksin University, lie on Kanjanawanich Road, the unofficial border between the Thai South and the Muslim-majority “Deep South” region.
Like much of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, all four Songkhla districts south of the road have been under Emergency Decree since a Muslim insurgency flared up in January 2004 during the administration of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
According to well-engrained stereotypes nationwide, Southern Thais are largely regarded as loud, fast-talking and somewhat aggressive. These are just the traits one would expect to find in a first-class ‘Varker,’ the name given to seniors who lead the hazing rituals. In Thai, ‘vark’ means ‘to scream.’
At RSKU, there was certainly no lack of ‘varking’ skills on display; the seniors’ tones were intense, their volume almost ear-splitting. And while the drill appeared a harsh yet organized form of bullying, most of the freshman boys seemed to take it in stride, smiling throughout.
When asked which of the school’s seven faculties had the harshest rub nong regime, several Varkers replied quickly, loudly, and in unison: “Faculty of Industrial Technology!” Asked what faculty they belonged to, the answer was the same: “Faculty of Industrial Technology!”
Asked if the current freshmen had it easier or harder than the hazing in the past, the seniors shouted,“Easier! Much easier!”
Nearby, a similar initiation rite was taking place with 20 female students sitting cross-legged on the pavement, three of them wearing the school-approved white hijap (muslim woman’s headdress).
The three Muslim girls, Wucharaporn Billah, Nuriyah Khremsan and Misbah Hawang, said they were from Songkhla and hadn’t been given any special treatment because of their religion.
“It’s the same for everyone. We have to do body drops too, but it is not as intense as what the boys go through,” said Ms. Nuriyah.
Asked if she was enjoying her initiation, Ms. Wucharaporn said it was a good way to bond with her new fellow classmates, although she was surrounded by several male Varkers during the interview.
Ms. Wucharaporn added that she hadn’t been forced to do anything that conflicted with her faith.
When asked why there weren’t any female Varkers present, one of the male Varkerrs said, “there are some female seniors who took part in the first few days, but most of them get bored with it after a while, so it is left to the males to take care of.”
Down the road at Thaksin University (TSU), whose student body is half Thai Buddhist and half Muslim, the effort to intimidate freshies was less pronounced.
“In the past there were some problems with harsh initiation rituals,” said Dr Patcharee R. Wichaidit, Assistant Dean of the TSU Faculty of Education. “But that all changed back in 2005, when the government established guidelines for these rituals following some tragic events.”
The role of the Varkers at TSU has morphed into more of “big brother” support role for the newcomers, she said.
TSU’s student body of about 13,500 undergrads is also even more predominantly female that at RSKU, which may explain its gentler approach to rub nong. Diyaporn Wisamitanan, a lecturer in the school Faculty of Humanities & Social Science, estimated that up to 70% of the students are female, in part because the school offers fields of study that tend to attract women, such as education, social science, and business.
Natchuda Samart, a 19-year-old Buddhist freshie from the remote district of Sukhirin on the Malaysian border in Narathiwat said she appreciated the initiation process.
“At first I was afraid of going through the rub nong induction because I had no idea what would happen,” said Ms. Natchuda. “But it actually allowed us to meet as many of our new classmates, as well as the upper classmen, as quickly as possible. It has left me with a warm feeling; all of the upper classmen really went out of their way to welcome us.”
Ms. Natchuda and all other freshies at TSU can be easily identified by the signs they are required to wear bearing their nicknames, faculties, and the “house” they are assigned to. Ms Nachuda’s new friend in the economics program, a Muslim “freshie” named Pattra Leh-asan from nearby Singhanakhon District of Songkhla, said the signs help seniors identify and assist confused or troubled-looking newcomers.
“They allow seniors to identify [the freshmen] and get them help,” she said.
Asked if there were any special provisions made for Muslim freshies duringrub nong, especially women, she said, “No, not at all. It’s exactly the same for all freshies here.”
Initiation in a conflict zone
Thai Universities in the far south tend to reflect local demographics, with student bodies composed of both Thai Buddhists and ethnic Malay-Muslims, two groups that have a tense relationship because of the decade-long separatist insurgency that has claimed the lives of over 6,000 people in the region. Fortunately, these tensions don’t seem to have too much impact on hazing traditions, which seem to become less severe the further south one travels.
At the sprawling Prince of Songkhla University Campus in Pattani (PSU Pattani), there were few signs of hazing during the start of term in mid-August.
“This year it has been less severe than it was two or three years ago,” said Ameen Lateh, a fourth-year English major from Yaha District in Yala. “This is mostly because the university has cracked down and banned the more physical and humiliation rituals, like forcing freshies to roll around in mud and things like that. They created measures to ensure that the rub nongactivities are creative and designed to build bonds between the freshmen and their upper classmen.”
The majority of the students at the school are Muslim, which also played a role in moderating the initiation activities, he said.
Certain physical activities like ‘boom screaming,’ in which the freshies yell chants for as long as the seniors deem fit, have been phased out because the Muslim students who now make up the majority of the student body no longer accept them.
“As Muslims we have to look at the Islamic teachings. The activities that are acceptable we will do; others we will not,” he said.
“In my first year I didn’t like some of the rub nong activities very much, so when I became the deputy student union leader in the Faculty of Education I worked to get the inappropriate ones replaced with more creative ones that would be more welcoming for the new students,” he said.
Dr Walakkamol Changkamol, Dean of the PSU Pattani’s Faculty of Communication Sciences, said that the make-up of the student body has shifted due to the ongoing conflict in the region.
In the past, the highly-rated school attracted many students from Bangkok and other parts of the country. But due to the ongoing insurgency and near daily violence in the region, the school now attracts far fewer students from outside the region, she said.
The student body shifted from a Thai Buddhist majority to Muslim majority about five years ago, with Muslims now making up about 90% of the students in her faculty, she said.
The change has affected not only the initiation ceremonies, but the extracurricular student activities such as singing, dancing and cheerleading, which tend to appeal more to Thai Buddhist students than their Muslim counterparts, she said.
“Our faculty is only 12 years old, so from the outset we campaigned for the seniors to conduct the rub nong welcoming in a way that respects the new students,” said Dr Walakkamol. “We want to give them a warm welcome as if they are joining a new family, one that respects their individuality and human rights.”
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