11 July 2024

For outspoken student activist Netiwit “Frank” Chotiphatphaisal, last week’s decision by Chulalongkorn University executives to remove him as its Student Government president was comparable to a coup. The decision was driven by “moral weakness” and obedience to “the dictatorial power”, he added.

“They did not care about the votes of more than 10,000 students that wanted me to do the job. It’s clear that the university’s executives do not respect the principles of freedom and democracy,” he said in a statement released last Saturday.

Chulalongkorn University (CU) is the oldest and most prestigious higher-education institute in Thailand.

Netiwit was elected to serve as president of CU’s Student Government in a landslide victory in March last year, gaining 10,324 votes or over 70 percent of the 14,691 ballots cast.

This is not the first time the 25-year-old political science student has been booted out of his post as a student leader. As a freshman in August 2017, Netiwit was removed as head of the university’s Student Council.

‘Inappropriate behavior’

Back then, CU executives penalized his “inappropriate behavior” in leading a walkout by eight students from the university’s oath-taking ceremony before the statue of King Rama V, after whom the prestigious institution is named.

The incident earned Netiwit global recognition thanks to supporting from several Nobel laureates and widespread coverage in the international media.

“I only wanted to show that there are different ways to pay respects to King Rama V. Everyone should be able to think for themselves. You shouldn’t force or coerce anyone into doing anything,” he told Reuters in September 2017.

Netiwit appealed against his dismissal at the Administrative Court, which ruled in his favor a year later, resulting in his council presidency being restored.

This year, the university’s executives said he was removed for “gross violation” of student regulations. They were referring to the Netiwit-led student union’s controversial decision to broadcast speeches by three lese majeste suspects during the university’s online orientation ceremony for new students last July.

During the broadcast, fellow student activist Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak from Thammasat University shared his “trick” for how to deal with university executives. “I often flip them the bird” to remind the executives that students are the boss, he said in the video clip while raising both his middle fingers.

Path to activism

Bespectacled with unkempt hair and a scholarly air, Netiwit may look harmless but he has earned a reputation as a fierce fighter for democracy and human rights, as well as a conscientious objector to mandatory conscription since he was 18.

Born on September 10, 1996, in Samut Prakan province, he is the youngest child of a middle-class family of shopkeepers.

The young man’s path to activism dates back to his high-school years when he called for reform of the Thai educational system.

In 2012, he co-founded the Thailand Education Revolution Alliance to push for reforms within the country’s school system, including the eradication of rote education and wider access to public schools. A year later, he founded a student group called Education for Liberation of Siam to campaign against “unjust actions” in the educational system.

Tit for tat with PM

After the military coup of May 2014, Netiwit joined street protests against the junta and the military while also demanding an early election.

After Netiwit was elected Chulalongkorn’s Student Council president in May 2017, junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha flagged a warning, saying that “extreme thinking is not okay”. The prime minister also called Netiwit’s brand of dissent a “disgrace” to the university.

The activist hit back in a Facebook post, asking “Who is a disgrace to the nation?” and accused Gen Prayut, as coup leader, of “destroying the reputation of Thailand for the past three years”.

Less than a year before that, in October 2016, Netiwit invited Hong Kong student leader Joshua Wong to give an address at Chulalongkorn University to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1976 massacre of protesters at Thammasat University.

However, Wong — who has been imprisoned by Hong Kong authorities on multiple charges stemming from his leadership of the so-called Umbrella Revolution — was detained upon arrival at Bangkok airport before being deported.

International recognition

Netiwit’s activism has earned him international recognition on more than one occasion. In 2018, he accepted an invitation to speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway on the topic “The Student vs the Military”.

In the same year, he was featured as one of “50 Asians to watch” in the public and social sector by Singapore’s Straits Times, in honor of his reformist activities on education, conscription and democracy.

Time magazine described him as a “messenger of social sanity” in its June 2017 article about his role as a student activist.

“I want to show people that they can actually do something, instead of just talking or thinking about it. My views are basically the opposite of the government, but slowly, more and more young people are starting to agree with me,” he was quoted as saying.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk