12 July 2024

Thailand’s oldest and arguably most prestigious seat of learning, Chulalongkorn University (CU) has undergone a transformation in recent years, as witnessed in controversial decisions made by its student union.  

The latest concerning the university’s symbol, the Phra Kiew coronet, has triggered a bitter clash of opinions between conservatives and liberals, royalists and reformists – as well as the university’s current students and its alumni.

Established by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) in honour of his father King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) on a vast plot of donated royal land, CU is often seen as the conservative and royalist counterpart of Thammasat, Thailand’s second-oldest university and a bastion of political dissent.

Controversial move

On October 23, as Thailand marked the 1910 passing of the university’s namesake King Chulalongkorn, CU’s student union announced its decision to cancel the traditional Phra Kiew parade ahead of the annual football match between CU and Thammasat.

The parade sees a male and a female student seated beside a Phra Kiew display atop a platform borne by about 50 students.

The student body voted unanimously to scrap the tradition, explaining in its statement that the Phra Kiew parade represented an “authoritarian system” and promoted social inequity that is at odds with universal values of democracy, equality and human rights.

In response, CU’s Office of Student Affairs last Wednesday (Oct 27) launched a fact-finding investigation to determine if the student union’s decision breached university regulations. If so, those involved would face disciplinary action, it said.

Critics claimed the announcement was made on Chulalongkorn Day to attack the monarchy, pointing out that it had no impact on the next football match, which has been postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19. The next event, the 75th, will be hosted by Thammasat.

Support vs criticism

The student union’s move sparked heated debate and fiery exchanges in social media, drawing much support as well as strong criticism from CU alumni and others.

Social critic Sulak Sivaraksa defended the student union, suggesting the Phra Kiew display could be borne by a vehicle rather than by students.

National artist Win Lyovarin was less happy with the decision to scrap the tradition. The former CU student and SEA Write Award winner quoted words attributed to “1984” author George Orwell: “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

For the Thai writer, a rootless future is like a people without shadows. “Human value lies in gratefulness. People should repay their debt of gratitude, or at least avoid being ungrateful,” Win wrote in his recent Facebook post.

History of defiance

The CU student union, which is led by well-known activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, had created controversies more than a few times before.

After the military coup of 2014, several CU students have become more politically active, participating in many anti-government protests as well as rallies calling for reform of the monarchy.

Netiwit, 25, himself displayed his resistance to the university’s long held traditions since he was a freshman in 2017, when he and seven other students walked out of a ceremony in which new students were prostrating before the statue of Kings Rama V and VI.

In May, the student union voted 9-8 to apologize for Chulalongkorn students’ participation in the 2013-2014 street protests against the Yingluck Shinawatra government’s bill for blanket amnesty to everyone involved in past political conflicts, including politicians convicted for corruption. The rally, joined by many others from across the country, culminated in the May 2014 military coup.

Again, during the university’s online orientation ceremony for new students in July, the student union broadcast recorded speeches by three lese majeste defendants, including student activist Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak from Thammasat, who shared his “trick” on 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 of his middle fingers.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk