A Brave New SOTUS: Seniority: Order: Tradition: Unity: Spirit.

Hazing in Thailand is institutional, but is it a time honoured tradition for forging bonds or bullying with dire consequences?

By | Tue 1 Nov 2016

Hazing in Thailand is institutional. Most university students will face hazing of some sort or another, from the benign to the deadly. It is a time honoured tradition for freshies at university to undergo weeks, even months, of intense hazing from their seniors. While there have been reports of hazing deaths and torture, on the most part it is an uncomfortable, time consuming, often painful experience which many students go through in the name of bonding with their faculty class mates.

This name, when mentioned, can evoke either a warm smile as memories of youth past is evoked, or total trauma recall. Here in Chiang Mai University, which will be our case study this month, SOTUS is officially banned, though the practice continues. The Engineering and Agriculture faculties in particular are well known for their brutal hazing rituals. “It’s no surprise, given that the first ever SOTUS event was at Kasetsart University, an agriculture based university, in the early sixties,” said Associate Dean for Student Development Affairs for the Faculty of Business Administration at Chiang Mai University, Dr. Kemakorn Chaiprasit, who is an anti-SOTUS activist. “It was imported from the Philippines by some exchange students as a means to control first year students and prevent fights with local technical college.” At the time the popular military schools of Thailand supported the idea, and within a few years SOTUS spread across every university and vocational college in the country, finally becoming institutionalised as one of the unique aspects of Thai university life, believed to be character building and ensuring the continuation of a traditional hierarchal society. Respect your seniors, follow orders, don’t question…It calmed the masses.

Over the last decade, the previously secretive SOTUS has been dragged squarely into the public domain. And most voices are crying foul.

“The world has changed,” said Dr. Kemakorn Chaiprasit. “In actual fact the Ministry of Education has already distanced itself from the tradition and is making efforts to end it, but unfortunately a SOTUS-free country is a long way off.”

This year Chiang Mai University came under fire when first year girls were beaten by their seniors during a trip to a dam in Nan Province, all in the name seniority and order. Just last month, a first year student from a Bangkok university almost drowned as he was forced to swim across a university campus pond. He was unconscious for three days while his family waited anxiously by his side. When he woke up he told them he was only doing what his seniors told him to do because that is what you have to do as a freshman.

Other cases reported over the last few years include dripping candle wax onto bare skin, forcing both male and female students to partake in sexually provocative actions against their will and being made to lie in the sun for hours on end with no water or sun protection.

A quick search revealed that over the last few years, five deaths have occurred as a direct result of hazing rituals, though the actual number is probably higher.

S is for Seniority

There have been ever-growing murmurings and rumblings throughout Thailand about SOTUS change. The media has led the charge, publishing one damning story after another. Today’s students have come a long way from those of the sixties and they are complaining at the abuse. That, coupled with progressive seniors, parents and teachers who are beginning to speak out, SOTUS is losing its grasp on the new generation.

Universities are beginning to take a stand and saying, “No more SOTUS” though many students say that while the name may have changed to ‘new student ceremony’, in many cases, the traditions are the same.

“Seniority is a part of Thailand and always will be,” said Chirawath Phatsara, now a senior professor in the Agriculture Faculty of Chiang Mai University but once a SOTUS cheerleader with seven years’ experience under his belt. “The world is changing and SOUTS is being criticised on all sides. People share videos on social media but forget about why we may be doing this to the students – it usually has a great lesson behind it.”

Chirawath is a big supporter of SOTUS, believing that the hazing rituals build life experience. “I think back to my time as a freshie every time I reach a hurdle in my life, and realise that if I could endure that, I can endure anything and I fight on.”

When asked about the changing opinion towards SOTUS by professors and students alike, he was surprised, but quickly accepted that hazing has to probably change to accommodate the newer generation of students, but disagreed with the growing campaigns to stop it entirely.

O is for Order

“We don’t force the freshies to do anything they don’t want to,” said 22-year-old Kit Channarong, current fourth year Mechanical Engineering Student at CMU and the man in charge of all the SOTUS rituals in his faculty for the last two years. Chirawath agrees that students who don’t participate in SOTUS can often be ostracised, but says that there are new systems in place to accommodate those who don’t want to get involved with SOTUS activities.

“First year students will very rarely fight back,” said Dr. Kemakorn on peer pressure. “Sure they may not ‘force you’ but you are told to follow orders. If you don’t you will become the black sheep of the flock and have no friends.”
Imagine a fresh young student filled with bright ideas, confidence and courage, suddenly subjected to such repression and pressure to conform in the first few months at university. Those great ideas soon escape them and they turn into another unquestioning drone.

“If you want new thoughts from the new generation, you can’t be forcing them to conform,” added Kornchit Phichai, the Student Affairs Officer in the Faculty of Business Administration who is working together with Dr. Kemakorn in this campaign to stop SOTUS.

Ironically, it is thanks to the tradition of seniority and hierarchy that Dr. Kemakorn has been able to pull the plug on SOTUS in her faculty once and for all. “As the associate dean of the faculty, I can pull rank and the senior students have to obey me too,” she said as she went on to explain that she has cut the entire budget for SOTUS this year.

The university may say that they are anti-SOTUS, but this is the first faculty to actually stop the tradition in its tracks, rather than just change its name.

The Faculty of Business Administration has an annual budget of 150,000 baht for hazing alone, with money going towards materials and sustenance at waak events. Nightly waak events throughout the first term of university are the norm. These ‘cheering’ sessions where students are taught songs and accompanying claps and movements, are interspersed by seniors who will interrupt and waak (onomatopoeia for scream and shout) at those not in formation or failing to follow. These hours’ long sessions can last for up to six hours, with seniors screaming at petrified freshies. This year, for the first time, the money has been put aside to fund what they are now describing as ‘professional social activities’ for first year students. This time it is not just a name change.

Quite simply, hazing rituals are strictly prohibited and seniors now have to come up with or get involved in socially conscious activities and projects, working together with the first years rather than assuming authority.

“This year we had to guide all the seniors as it is totally new territory for them,” explained Kornchit. “Strangely enough, despite having gone through SOTUS themselves, the seniors were still keen to ‘get their own back’ by taking it out on the new students. We had to work really hard to convince them otherwise.”

“We are a socially conscious faculty, and as a result our main project this year will be the cleaning of the Mae Kha Canal,” Kornchit explained of the faculty’s intention to turn the students’ initiations into something constructive. This year they will clean a stretch of the filthy canal by clearing it banks, dredging rubbish, laying grass and creating a better environment for the many communities who rely on it. “Given the recent passing of His Majesty the King, we have decided to plant just white flowers this year in tribute to him,” Kornchit added.

In addition to the canal clean-up project, the faculty is also using its budget to offer tiny loans to students to open small businesses – baking cookies, selling munchies and encouraging them to find innovative ways to advertise. Any profits made must be returned to the faculty and will be saved for the next year’s activities. “Who knows, maybe one day our freshie activities could fund themselves — if that happens I bet the university management will be keen to force all other faculties to follow suit!”

Cutting back to the students and the benefit of working together, seniors and freshies, Kornchit added, “respect must be earned, and once you are respected then your orders will be followed. If you force the freshies to do things that are inappropriate, why should they respect you?” Dr. Kemakorn butts in by saying “…because its tradition.”

T is for Tradition

“SOTUS is a great Thai tradition, we sing our faculty anthem together, we instil a sense of spirit and confidence into the first year students and we teach them how to suffer so that in the future they can cope with the real world,” expressed Chirawath with a beaming smile, pausing a moment to reminisce of his time as a first year student. “Okay I can admit, SOTUS is not the best in its current form, but it’s not the worst either.” As a SOTUS leader turned professor, he is using his adult life experience along with his support of the system to try and reshape the SOTUS landscape to deal with what he describes as the ‘hypersensitivity’ of the younger generation.

“I have made sure that now, if any student is not happy with what is going on or becomes injured or sick because of SOTUS, their peers must look after them and make sure they are safe and happy. If someone is injured they are taken straight to the hospital, and if someone doesn’t want to get involved then their peers work as therapists and help resolve the bad feelings.”

“I grew up with SOTUS,” said Dr. Kemakorn as she rolled her eyes at the idea that emotionally or physically affected students can have their problems fixed by the very same peers who caused the damage in the first place. “One of my best friends had a heart attack as a result of a hazing ritual, it was too late to help them.” Kornchit added that one of his friends also died after he was forced to drink so much alcohol he went into shock.

U is for Unity

“Even though we are only a few month into this first new school year with no (official) SOTUS, a few other faculties at the university are expressing interest in following suit,” Dr. Kemakorn happily. “I genuinely think it is only a matter of time before universities across Thailand will start doing similar things, but for now I think we are the first to dare make such a step.”

“Personal development and encouragement to think big has been lost over the decades,” she added. “At the very least I want to stop hazing and encourage seniors and freshies to work together, and treat each other as equals.”

Assistant Professor Wasan Jompakdee of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and another anti-SOTUS activist poopoos the idea that SOTUS imbues unity amongst students.

“Crises have happened. There have been arguments and fights not just between years of students, but those from different faculties. Students are trained through hazing to put their class and faculty above all else. This separates; not joins. It promotes importance of faculty above all else.”

S is for Spirit

“I have been a lecturer at the university for 40 years,” continued Asst. Prof. Wasan. “If you have a soul of a teacher then your purpose in life is to give good advice to your students. I have experienced SOTUS from day one and even then, I worried that we were simply repeating our mistakes. You need to constantly analyse what you are doing as a teacher and re-evaluate yourself. I did that with SOTUS and came to the realisation many years ago that there is no logic, no thought, no understanding, no depth, no clarity. SOTUS is simply doing what has always been done without reason or conscious thought. It is also a system based on emotion rather than reason. I believe that we must try to work to find understanding amongst all involved, from the dean of each faculty to students, parents and even alumni.”

It must not be forgotten that in Thailand adulthood officially begins at 20, so first year students at the tender age of 18 are often treated like children, taught to obey follow. SOTUS is the perfect mould for a society that doesn’t question the rules. Of course it takes more than just SOTUS to stop critical thought, but SOTUS comes at a crucial time of life; just at the point when you dare to ask questions, just at the point you have a chance to have a voice in what should be a secure environment for expression. Individuality is ruthlessly suppressed in the name of unity.

“The process of change is not easy, and the blood of SOTUS runs through almost every teacher, senior and professor. It’s just whether they choose to follow the masses or instigate change,” Dr. Kemakorn concluded, quietly confident the paradigm has been shifted.

Perhaps a happy medium can be found. Keep the name but change the traditions — as opposed to changing the name but keeping the traditions. Asst. Prof. Wasan’s suggests a simple modern interpretation that is upheld across the board and which could be it all it takes to redefine SOTUS and put an end to senseless hazing.

Seniority: In the Thai and Asian sense of respecting one another, especially those older and with more experience.

Order: To have discipline within one’s own life, sage advice handed down by the Buddha.

Tradition: The respect of culture and tradition. But only those proven to be imbued with value and goodness, passed down through generations.

Unity: The ability to work alongside peers as well as with strangers, an important life skill.

Spirit: The development of one’s own spirit can only lead to compassion, service and the spirit of communal good.