BANGKOK — Peter was not sure whether to take the once-in-a-lifetime chance to attend his commencement ceremony, but when he heard of the police attacking unarmed protesters on Oct. 16, he could not take it anymore.
The 23-year-old graduate of the College of Innovation, Thammasat University is one of many who have decided against attending the ceremony, in which Their Majesties the King and Queen are set to preside over this Friday and Saturday.
The ceremony, where degrees will be conferred on graduates, has long been considered the pinnacle of life achievement for many Thais, but calls for a boycott have grown as protests demanding reform are gripping the kingdom.
“I no longer see the value of it,” Peter, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, said.
“At first, I wanted to do it for my parents who paid for my education, but after I learned about the police crackdown on demonstrators on Oct. 16, I was able to make up my mind. Everyone knows what’s going on and I believe this will send a signal to the regime.”
For months, pro-democracy protesters have taken to streets to call for PM Prayut Chan-o-cha to resign, as well as for reforms to the country’s sacrosanct institution. The protests took a violent turn when police dispersed the crowd occupying Pathumwan Intersection on Oct. 16.
Riot police used high pressure water cannons on the protesters, many of them students, the water laced with chemical irritants. Police insisted the chemicals were harmless, despite eyewitnesses reporting a burning sensation on their skin and eyes.
But rather than discouraging the demonstrators, more people turned out in the following rallies. Many recent graduates like Peter were also galvanized by the recent developments and decided to take a defiant stand against the establishment.
“I wasn’t at the protest that day, but my boyfriend was there,” Peter said. “He called me and his voice was quivering with fear. I was shocked when he told me that water cannons were used against the protesters.”
“I don’t understand why they have to be brutal, many of them are still underaged. I made the decision not to attend the ceremony right away.”
A total of 9,625 graduates are eligible to attend this year’s ceremony, though less than half of them showed up at the dress rehearsal held last week.
The author of this article was attending the event and witnessed graduates who were seated on the second floor of the auditorium being moved downstairs to fill up vacant seats.
Speaking to Isra news agency, Thammasat vice rector Chalie Charoenlarpnopparut attributed the low attendance to the ongoing protests, along with other reasons.
“It may be related to the current political situation,” Chalie was quoted as saying. “There’s a campaign against the ceremony. Some people may find it inconvenient to take coronavirus tests prior to attending the ceremony, while others may not be available due to a short notice given by the university.”
The ceremony was originally planned for April, when the domestic coronavirus outbreak reached its height, before it was postponed to October – 14 months after the final semester ended.
Media reports quote Thammasat University officials as saying that only 54 percent of the students due for the commencement have registered for the ceremony itself this year.
Although it is not uncommon for graduates to skip the commencement ceremony since it is entirely voluntary, a campaign was launched earlier this month by a group of Thammasat graduates and current students to boycott what they described as a “superfluous and onerous event.”
It soon went viral.
Calling themselves “Thammasat Graduates of the People” after the People’s Party 2020 activist group which is leading the ongoing pro-democracy protests, one of its leaders said the group aims to bring back the spotlight of the big day to the graduates while supporting the demands for monarchy reform.
“We’re not focusing on the monarch,” Dao, a third-year sociology student, said. “We’re focusing on the graduates themselves. It’s their day and they’re not supposed to wait for hours or act solemnly for someone.”
Dao added, “It’s undemocratic and will only reinforce the hegemonic position of the monarchy even further. Everyone should be equal.”
During the rehearsal on the weekend of Oct. 24 and Oct. 26, the group erected life-size cutouts of key monarchy critics such as Somsak Jeamteerasakul and Pavin Chachavalpongpun, where graduates were invited to take photos and receive a mock degree from them.
On stage, speakers also discussed key points of monarchy reform before the hordes of well-wishers who were busy snapping selfies with the graduates.
While it is not surprising to see the campaign being launched at Thammasat University, which has often been at the forefront of the pro-democracy movement in Thai history, Dao said her opening move has now spread to other universities.
Such an open criticism of the highly revered institution, let alone a call to ban the ceremony presided over by the monarch, is unimaginable in the past. But as protesters have been pushing bold demands for reform, Dao said it is time to bring up the underground movement onto the surface.
“Calls to boycott the ceremony have been floating around over the past years, but they were never made publicly,” Dao said. “We were inspired by the ongoing protests. They made us realize that we, the people, are actually the most important.”
The group also teased that a “Big Surprise” awaits at the final day of the commencement ceremony on Saturday. Dao was tight-lipped about what will happen, though she said it will unfold at 5pm, when Their Majesties are expected to arrive at the university.
Proud, a graduate of the Faculty of Political Science, was delighted by the movement, even though she does not believe that she is a ‘graduate of the people.’
“It’s good for them to come out and stand by those who don’t want to attend the ceremony,” Proud said. “I understand that they’re trying to relate to the ongoing demonstrations. It’s not all about the establishment, but the day is meant to prove to society that success is individual and not to be handed down by someone.”
Having begun her career for more than a year already, Proud decided not to attend the commencement because she no longer felt enthused about the graduation.
She also found the ceremony, in which attendees have to conform to a strict dress code from head to toe, to be oppressive.
“I don’t consider myself a fresh graduate,” Proud said. “I feel that the ceremony is redundant. I don’t want to attach my success to the university or the establishment. I want my graduation to be a chance where I celebrate with my friends and family rather than giving in to nonsense rules.”
For graduates like Proud, the graduation ceremony would simply be a day for them to take photos with their friends and family in academic gown. The diploma will be given to them by the university at a later date.
Another political science graduate, Jena, said she felt obligated to her parents’ wishes to see the degree being conferred on her from the hand of His Majesty the King.
“My parents kept telling me that it’s a once in a lifetime experience,” Jena said. “Although they did not threaten to do anything if I decided to skip the ceremony, they begged me to attend. I understand how my parents perceive the value of the prestigious ceremony.”
Apart from her political stance against the establishment, Jena, who is a frequent protest-goer, felt that the expense of attending the ceremony was blown out of proportion.
“The dress code is painstakingly scrupulous,” Jena said. “I have to buy a new skirt for 300 baht, a new pair of shoes for 1,000 baht, and pay another 1,000 baht for hair dyeing to make sure that they will let me in.
“All this comes on top of the makeup fee for 2,500 baht and photographer hire for 4,000 baht, which are standard expenses for almost every graduate now.”
An economics graduate, Pon, was also compelled by his parents to attend the ceremony, even though he felt it was a waste of time.
“My parents are salim. They said it’s non-negotiable,” Pon said, using a derogatory term referring to pro-establishment supporters. “I don’t want to sit there for half a day and follow the ridiculous dress code, in which shoes must have no laces and even a banknote is not allowed to be brought in.”
He added, “I only do this because I don’t want to let them down.”
On the other hand, some parents are against the ceremony.
Political science graduate Book broke his parents’ request to skip the ceremony and decided to take part in order to experience the rare occasion where he gets to meet Their Majesties in person.
“My parents said it is a pointless ceremony,” Book said. “They don’t want to get up early and wait for me. However, I want to see it with my own eyes, especially during the current political situation where there are calls to reform the monarchy and some groups are teasing for a big surprise.”
“It must be a once in a lifetime experience for sure.”