23 May 2024

The recent football match between Chulalongkorn and Thammasat universities may have looked like an edition of the traditional sporting event held almost every year since 1934. But in reality, it was no such thing.

“No, the recent event was not the Chula–Thammasat Traditional Football Match,” Assoc Prof Dr Jessada Denduangboripant, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Science, explained on social media as he sought to quell public uproar over the parade held for the match.

Outcry and explanation

Several alumni of Chulalongkorn University – aka Chula or CU – have expressed dismay and anger over how the emblem of their esteemed institute was carried into Bangkok’s Supachalasai National Stadium on March 31.

The parade broke with tradition by dispensing with a palanquin carried by students and using a humble electric golf cart to bear the royal emblem.

Even casual observers expressed surprise that CU, with its many faculties and talents, had been unable to present the emblem in a better way.

Some said that at first glance, the emblem – which symbolizes both the university and the king it is named after – appeared as if it had been placed amid a pile of rubbish.

The controversy came three years after the Chulalongkorn University Student Council voted unanimously to abolish the practice of students bearing the royal emblem during the parade, calling it a remnant of feudalism that encourages inequality. The 2021 vote came amid anti-establishment student protests that called for reform and transparency of the monarchy.

Named Phra Kieo, the emblem represents a coronet worn by Thai princes and princesses. It is associated with King Chulalongkorn the Great (King Rama V), the founder of a school that was upgraded into CU in the reign of King Rama VI. Critics were quick to accuse the students of deliberately disrespecting the symbol in a demonstration of their liberal opposition to Thailand’s royalist and hierarchical establishment.

However, the parade’s organizers denied any anti-royalist agenda and explained that the students had a positive intention and concept for the CU emblem parade. The event was inspired by the growing trend for sustainability, with symbols used to represent different fields of study. At the foot of the tray carrying the Phra Kieo were placed replicas of dumbbells, to represent sports science; gears, to symbolize engineering; and a needle as an emblem of medical knowledge, etc.

Why was CU-TU Unity Football Match 2024 held?

Jessada explained that CU and Thammasat students had decided to organize the match and parade after the traditional football match between the two universities was suspended during the COVID pandemic.

Plans emerged last year to resume the tradition in 2024 but they collapsed due to a scheduling clash.

“CU-TU Unity Football Match 2024 was relatively small in scale,” the lecturer said.

Long history of traditional matches

The first traditional football match between CU and Thammasat was held in 1934 under the initiative of Suankularb Witthayalai School alumni who wanted their universities to establish strong ties. CU is regarded as a conservative institution in contrast with Thammasat’s more progressive ethos, and students from the two biggest universities sometimes clash in meetings.
The founders of the traditional football match hoped sporting ties would help bring students from the two varsities closer together. Their plan was inspired by the traditional Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge universities in England, but football was chosen since it was the sport favored by the founders.

The result was the annual Chula–Thammasat or Thammasat-Chula Traditional Football Match, with the name reflecting the fact that each university takes turns to host the match.

The traditional sporting event raises funds for charitable causes. Money raised at the inaugural edition in 1934 went to an association fighting tuberculosis, which was back then a deadly disease.

Over time, the traditional football match evolved and expanded in scale. Added to the event were parades, cheerleaders, card stunts, and more. Media coverage has also grown, with much attention paid to political messages the parades present each year.

The football matches have been held almost every year, suspended only during times of turmoil. Widescale flooding saw the event cancelled in 1942, while World War II and its fallout led to the match’s suspension from 1943 to 1948. The event was also called off during domestic political unrest between 1972 and 1975. The last traditional football match between Chula and Thammasat was held in early 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk