BANGKOK — Universities must do a better job investigating student sexual assault complaints and encouraging them to go to police, several women’s rights activists say.
A poll of three major Bangkok universities by Khaosod English found education programs and advocacy for victims are non-existent, and when incidents occur, they are handled internally. One university official said public attention to such matters risks damage to the college’s reputation.
While representatives from Chulalongkorn, Silpakorn and Thammasat universities said they leave the decision of involving the police up to the victims, women’s rights advocate Jaded Chaowilai said colleges must do more to encourage them to take legal action.
“They should even take the victims to police, instead of covering it up or fearing for their reputation,” Jaded from the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation said.
Read: Sexual Violence Stalks Thailand’s Activist Community
Varaporn Chamsanit, head of a publicly funded advocacy group, said agreed it is ultimately up to the victims whether they want to seek criminal prosecution, but said universities must inform them of their options.
“The universities should give information to the victims and let them know that what happened was against the law: ‘If you want to take it to police, we will support you,’” said Varaporn, director of the Women’s Wellbeing and Gender Justice Program at Mahidol University.
Sexual assaults at universities have gained attention after a fourth-year law student at Thammasat came forward to say she was assaulted by a fellow student. She spoke to Khaosod English earlier this month for a report on a pattern of sexual violence – and concealment – within the activist community.
The vast majority of Thai rape victims keep their experiences secret, so it was a rare admission when Thararat Panya came forward with her experience.
She also detailed how she sought action by the university. While Thararat did not go to police – she did not have faith it would deliver justice or handle her with sensitivity – she filed a formal complaint with her faculty, who in turn took the matter to the university administrators.
The man she said attacked her, Phattanachoke Thanasirakul, was found guilty by a university disciplinary committee, which suspended him for a semester and ordered him to perform community service. Phattanachoke declined Monday to comment for this story.
There are no statistics about how many assaults take place on campuses because apart from what makes it into news reports, they go unreported – and no one is keeping track.
As vice president of Thammasat student affairs, Chalie Charoenlarpnopparut signed the decision assigning guilt to Phattanachoke in Thararat’s case. In a phone interview, he said the university notified police at a monthly meeting about the assault but did not ask them to take any action.
He also said it’s very rare for students to seek help from the university, especially if they are harassed or assaulted by their own peers.
“If the victim and the attacker are from the same university and faculty, mostly they choose to settle the issue privately,” Chalie said.
Chulalongkorn University vice president Chaiyaporn Puprasert said it’s up to victims to go to the police. The university is willing to assist the students if they choose to seek legal prosecution, he said.
“If the students wishes to go to police, we are willing to give them full assistance in every way,” said Chaiyaporn, who is also in charge of student affairs at his school.
A Silpakorn University official also said only victims can go to the police under the law.
“We can advise them, because the university is not the victim,” Vice President Pitak Siriwong said by phone. “That’s how Thai law works.”
In recent weeks a scandal consumed Silpakorn involving a student’s allegations a senior professor pressured her into posing nude for him.
Pitak cited the scandal as an example. According to a university statement released Sept. 4, the college terminated the art lecturer, who wasn’t identified by the college, and offered to assist the student should she decide to press charges.
On Tuesday, Pitak acknowledged male freshman students were ordered to strip naked as part of university hazing but denied reports they were forced to touch a senior classmate’s genitals.
Ngamlamai Piolueang, who heads student affairs at Kasetsart University, did not return multiple calls made over a period of four days.
In a country where the stigma of sexual assault can be worse for victims than perpetrators, victims rarely go to the police. While officials and experts estimate there are at least 10,000 cases of sexual violence each year, a report released by police in 2015 said only 2,800 rape cases were filed that year.
Varaporn from the Mahidol-based group said she understands victims who shun the criminal justice; police can be intrusive and the trial long and exhausting.
“We cannot guarantee to the victims that police will be sensitive and the procedure will be short,” she said. “We cannot guarantee it.”
Jaded, the activist, said university officials should educate students about their rights to seek legal prosecution in order to encourage them into action.
“They should know they have the rights to complain to the university, and to the police,” he said.
No Light Shined
None of the universities offers education or prevention programs on sexual assault.
Women’s welfare advocate Jaded said research shows the only Thai women more victimized than university-aged girls and women are those younger than 15.
“This is something the universities should declare in their official policies: We don’t want it to happen on our campuses, so here’s what we will do,” he said.
Varaporn said the best time for universities to send the message that “it’s not okay to do it to someone, and it’s not ok for someone to do it to you” is at freshman orientation. Like Jaded, she suggested that staff and lecturers be educated about sexual violence as well.
She said she’s unaware of any university in Thailand which has implemented specific measures on the issue.
“To my knowledge, and as far as I know, none,” Varaporn said.
None of the universities could provide numbers of reported assaults involving students or faculty.
Chaiyaporn at Chulalongkorn would not say how many complaints the university has received, saying the number was a privacy concern.
The representatives of two other universities said they are very rare. Chalie said Thararat’s complaint was the only he’s aware of while on the job.
“This is the first case I found in the last five years.” Chalie said. After a pause, he said. “Yes, this is the first.”
Silpakorn’s Pitak said he was unaware of any complaints of harassment or assault filed involving Silpakorn students in recent years. He said he didn’t have access to information about whether any were made against professors.
Silpakorn and Thammasat universities have 21,000 and 25,000 students in their undergraduate programs, respectively.
Accepting the possibility some portion of those students fall victim to sexual violence, Chalie said it’s not surprising there is little information because most victims are reluctant to come forward.
For this reason, Thammasat has a general counseling clinic where students can anonymously seek advice without having to file a complaint. Chalie said he doesn’t know details of specific cases since all information is kept in secret at the clinic, but he asserted that many students use it.
“For three years since it opened, it has received many requests for counseling,” Chalie said. “There are students who are abused by their friends, or harassed by their lecturers. We have given a lot of help.”
The clinic refers students with serious issues to the university hospital, the vice president said.
Chaiyaporn from Chulalongkorn said his university also offers general counseling for students, but nothing specific to sexual assault.
For Pitak, the absence of complaints is proof there are no incidents at Silpakorn. He said sexual violence among students is “very rare” these days.
“In this era, the society is already changed. People’s behavior has changed,” Pitak said. “For example, in dorms, many students live together like husbands and wives. They experiment with cohabitation. So why would they harass anyone?”
He believes sexual violence was a problem of more socially conservative times:
“In the past, when students were more celibate and reserved, there were more cases of sexual harassment.”
Chaiyaporn said that procedures for filing complaints can be found in handbooks distributed to every Chulalongkorn student in their first year.
A look at this year’s handbooks found a brief mention of how students can lodge general complaints on page 139, sandwiched between chapters on general code of conduct and exam fraud. It makes no mention of sexual assault or how to report it.
Reached for comment, Chaiyaporn reiterated that students can take complaints of sexually violent crime, as with all other crimes and wrongdoing, to their respective faculties if the incidents took place in its facilities or to a university disciplinary committee if they happen outside.
“It’s a procedure for every action, such as fighting or gambling,” the Chulalongkorn vice rector said. “But in case of sexual violations, the procedures would be confidential, so it won’t damage anyone.”
Thammasat student Thararat said she had to find out all the information on her own after she was assaulted in March.
Chalie admitted the details are not well publicized, but said there will be changes in the light of Thararat’s experience. Two classes all first year students are required to take – Social Life Skills and Civic Engagement – will feature sections about sexual assault.
The student council will also increase awareness of how to seek help from the university if students have any problems, including sexual violence, he said.
Silpakorn vice president Pitak said there is a hotline for students to report any incident.
However, he added that he’s reluctant to draw attention to sexual assaults of students, citing concerns about how it could affect his university’s image.
“If all of sudden we tell them, don’t do it, even though we don’t have any case about it, we might stir up suspicions,” Pitak said. “Outsiders may wonder, is something going on? Will people look at us that way?”