Hazed or Abused? The timely death of SOTUS in Thailand

SOTUS is the overarching, emblematic, mantric, and sometimes toxic formula that is supposed to embody the university hazing ritual (rab nong) in Thailand.

By | Fri 28 Jun 2013

SOTUS (Seniority: Order: Tradition: Unity: Spirit) In that order.

I like the idea of unity and spirit, it’s a shame they come so late in the pack. How much spirit can be left after seniority and order have had their wicked way?

SOTUS is the overarching, emblematic, mantric, and sometimes toxic formula that is supposed to embody the university hazing ritual (rab nong) in Thailand. Freshman, those dowdy (their chaste uniform style is comparable to Hamish vogue), silky-face first year students can be seen around Chiang Mai sometimes in their hundreds marching and singing, with their mono-syllabic name tags swinging from their incorruptible necks. Their seniors, former freshies themselves of course, move within these groups often shouting orders and sometimes looking like they are taking their ‘seniority’ a little too seriously.

So seriously that students incur injuries. Students cry. Students complain of torture and abasement. Few, but more than enough students talk about suicide following a year of ritualistic burdens. And tens of thousands of students take to Facebook to vent their disapproval of SOTUS. It’s so serious that Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is currently investigating hazing rituals. The Wall Street Journal even had a go at SOTUS this month when it published a piece on Thailand’s online anti-SOTUS uprising. At the same time people are talking about how the SOTUS blueprint – which holds fast to inherent, unbreakable rules of conformity and abeyance – is aligned with the predictable bad habits of a typical dictatorial government (such as the governments students rallied against in the 1970s in Thailand) – something Thailand is supposed to be moving away from. SOTUS and Thailand’s less democratic past are consanguineous. Love for your faculty, students are told, is unquestionable. You must learn love, and you must know your place in the faculty hierarchy. When the seniors are done with the freshman they will know how to obey orders. A fitting simulacrum of SOTUS ethos might be hundreds of half-smiling students being told to proudly sing a Thai Land of Hope and Glory, but sing it while they are crawling on their knees.

SOTUS tradition, it seems, goes too far at times. Nonetheless, and probably because SOTUS mirrors in many ways Thailand’s power structure, or even in some cases family values, SOTUS has been allowed its rather aggressive, unenlightening, militaristic foibles. The rituals, games (that depends on where, and who you are), and petty marches are supposed to drill into the freshman a sense of order, a sense of pride, a sense of status (hidden curriculums), a sense of fear, while each new tame member to the institute makes new friends with other members of his or her faculty. Thai students, many of whom are making use of social media platforms, are saying that they have been dispirited more than (S) spirited during their rigorous hazing period. Anti-SOTUS groups in Thailand might just be one of the country’s biggest cultural ‘movements’ of this epoch, impelling thousands of young Thais to demand a change in the education system.

Thai newspaper Matichon writes that SOTUS in Thailand originated in Kasetsart University in the late forties, after teachers from Cornell University and Oregon University decided to introduce hazing rituals to Thailand. Hazing or SOTUS is not exclusively Thai, although when we think about hazing as a western cultural phenomenon most people would view it as anachronistic. British boys’ schools have long been known for hazing rituals, and were often depicted as homo-erotic shenanigans in the early 20th century that inspired people with plummy accents to write a book. Hollywood films about hazing generally disappeared in the 80s, and usually involved necking in the back of a car and a hazing prank at the rich boys club that went horribly wrong. Hazing rituals are all but dead in the west. But hazing in Thailand is still very modern, it’s still important, it’s a big, and often life-changing part of a Thai student’s life.

If you watch students being hazed at Chiang Mai University in the evening you’d know what I mean. It looks more like a Hitler youth training session than fecund minds being introduced to the vast complexities of academic life, or at best a very ill-willed and deviant boy-scouts or girl guides routine.

That’s not to say many students don’t enjoy hazing, a lot do, and others just accept it without being so abrasive towards it. It can look like fun, and some students enjoy their experience. Not all faculties submit students to hardcore hazing and extremism. Many students will tell you they enjoyed their hazing days, and many will tell you they didn’t, but are glad they went through it. But the fact is the amount of negativity SOTUS has received cannot be ignored, neither can what SOTUS symbolizes in terms of politics and society.

Taken from an Anti-SOTUS Facebook page

This is taken from a (translated) conversation seen on a Chiang Mai web board about Maejo University hazing (Maejo apparently has the most rigorous, or brutal hazing). The conversation was posted in full on a Facebook Anti-SOTUS page:

“On the 7th day of hazing, they will “deliver” us as Mae Jo babies. The 2nd years will line up, holding hands to form a sort of fence around us, while the freshmen will hang on to each other’s belts. With our heads down, we walk in line to Kasetsanan pond. The road is very dark. Fists and feet are coming at us from all directions, all we can do is keep our heads down. Then there are these questions we have to keep answering, and we have to keep saying, ‘I am Maejo!’. We have to crawl in this knee-deep stream in the jungle. Sometimes seniors will push our heads in the water. They say we are attached to Maejo’s umbilical cord. I don’t remember much, my ears were ringing from all the shouting and feet were flying everywhere. This whole process starts around midnight and finishes at 7 a.m.. It’s like being in hell.”

The student who wrote said he was given a set of rules to follow:

1) Respect Maejo law as the law of the kingdom itself

2) Do the right thing. Do what the seniors tell you

3) Finish your sentence with ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ every time when you address an upperclassmen

4) Upon hearing Mae Jo’s anthem you must stand to attention, heads down and salute

He ended by saying:

“They also make us swear in front of the goddess shrine not to divulge anything that happened. Whoever opens their mouth will die within 3 or 7 days from weapons or accidents, their families will be ruined.”

I don’t have proof any of this happened. But the student who wrote this is among many with nightmare stories available to read online. Notice that the SOTUS law is compared to ‘the law of the kingdom’.

Perhaps because of this Thailand’s Ministry of Education introduced ‘Reception Welcoming Regulations’ this year. These include:

1. Focus on creative welcoming activities

2. Disallow welcoming activities outside the institute

3. Under observation of lecturers or faculty’s committee

4. Morally follow acceptable traditions and the culture of society

5. No harassment both physically and mentally

Number four of course is a kind of paradox, because bullying, violence, and many other catastrophic aspects of society have become acceptable in society, or are sometimes ignored. SOTUS is a fragment of society, not something standing outside of it. What many critics of SOTUS are asking for is not guidelines for typical hazing, but a complete transformation of what is normal and accepted. A radical change in how new students are treated.

From the newspaper Thairath

I should add that many students at Maejo did not experience this Lord of the Flies type treatment. Yu, an ex-student of Maejo University, said that she thought the hazing ritual at Maejo was, “an excellent system.” She said she believed it created “love and harmony” and “respect to everyone, even old security guards or housekeepers.”

Gun, another ex-student from Maejo wrote on a Facebook SOTUS site:

“SOTUS made me love my university forever. It is stuck with me for life.”

There are plenty of positive SOTUS experiences.

Nonetheless, some of the horror SOTUS stories are reminiscent of what we can read about the 1970s Stamford Prisoner Experiment, which illustrated that creating levels of power amongst groups of people and giving impunity to the more powerful can lead to all sorts of vicious proclivities. Some of these repercussions have been cases of rape, assault, and stress disorders suffered by bullied students. SOTUS is a minefield, it’s an explicit master/slave situation, a kind of university sanctioned sadism, wherein the bullied eventually becomes the bullies.

Importantly, many students I talked to said they did not enjoy at all their hazing period, but now they are seniors they understand it, and are enjoying it now they are the ones doing the shouting.

Ann, a third year studying in the humanities department told me in a kind of apologetic way:

“I hated it when I was a freshie, but I like it now. I enjoyed meeting new friends, although sometimes the process is bad, it’s too violent. But we have to ask the students if they want to participate. They don’t have to do it.”

Peter de Rouck, CMU English teacher and Anti-SOTUS campaigner explained to me how many of new students consistently complain about hazing:

“I was reading papers from my students and I realised how strongly they felt about hazing. I wasn’t aware before that. Students writing about shouting and humiliation.”

When Peter started an Anti-SOTUS Facebook page in English he attracted many followers. Peter asks not that receiving students be stopped but that it comes, “under a different banner, not SOTUS”, which he says is “some kind of fascist-like regime.”

The League of Liberal Humanities, a group 2nd year Philosophy and English Chiang Mai university students, who also have an anti-SOTUS Facebook page told me that students may not be obligated to take part in SOTUS but don’t really have a choice:

“The seniors will tell all the other students not to talk to you,” says Or, a philosophy major, adding, “Freshman don’t want to be separated, so they do it. Many students don’t want to do it, but they are too afraid to say anything. We want to be able to make a choice, our hope is that soon it will change.

“Our parents have to sign a letter agreeing that their children can take part in activities, but the letter doesn’t explain what these activities are. There are no details. The letter doesn’t say we’ll be shouted at, have to do push-ups, sit-ups.”

They tell me they have a lot of support from CMU teachers, although they also say that there is a distinct difference from pro- and anti-SOTUS types of teacher, and that there are plenty of pro-SOTUS teachers still around. They mention outspoken critic and ex-political science professor at CMU ajarn Tanet Charoenmuang. Tanet has written a paper criticizing SOTUS called, ‘Shouting – The Creation and Inheritance of Dictatorship in University’ (translation). In the paper he writes that students who experience hazing in Thailand cannot “see the importance of freedom.”

He also writes, “These people, in my mind, are victims of a dictatorship system.”

“The university doesn’t want to lose face,” the group tells me, explaining that change is difficult when the university doesn’t accept the magnitude of the problem.

The League of Liberal Humanities has stuck up campaign stickers all around CMU, but they were quickly taken down. The group seems to think that the Pro-SOTUS force is strong.

“One of my friends yesterday, a Chinese major, she tried to take a video but was told to stop immediately as it wasn’t allowed,” says Or, and she explains that photographs and videos are verboten during most SOTUS events.

Much like extremely difficult physical military training the group told me that some students take pride in coming through harsh training. This sense of pride is echoed by many pro-SOTUS students writing on social media.

Or told me about her transsexual friend:

“The katoey in her faculty, the ones who’ve had operations, had to take off their tops and rubs their boobs on the ground as they crawled, and the senior boys ordered them to move and shouted at them. But for some reason my friend feels proud she did it. That she finished it. I don’t understand.”

Anti-SOTUS Facebook page (girls being forced to lick a wooden phallus)

It sounds a bit like Stockholm Syndrome.

Einstein called nationalism “the measles of mankind, an infantile disease”, and though I agree – and I think SOTUS is a direct corollary of nationalism – it’s certainly not as confounding as an airborne disease like measles. It’s more like a tangible rot, that if not removed, will spread to other parts of any given area.

The pressure to belong is to a larger group is natural and students need activities where they can gel with each other. But why must these activities be effectively oppressive and anti-intellectual, rather than something that encourages freedom of expression and the radicalization of the intellect? This is a matter of great concern. We might ask how much damage SOTUS is doing, not just to the bodies and minds of its victims, but to the future of Thailand. How much is SOTUS limiting progress, real social progress – not only the financial kind we are hearing so much about these days?

I’d rather know my child was experimenting with Ecstasy, or waking up in strangers’ beds with dicks painted on their face, than find out they are being marched around lakes like Guantanamo marks while being ordered to pledge allegiance to various clubs and institutions. Students have to become adults in university, and firstly this means changing the rules of the language game – stop referring to students as dek. Respect their presence, their intellect, their autonomy. You’ll find their grades rise, not drop. But they can only grow-up when the institution around them also does a bit of growing up, and accepts it’s out of date and admits a few hard things about itself; the fact some of its old traditions have prolapsed, its dated mantras can be harmful, and that after every death of an idea or tradition there is rebirth of another idea and tradition. And it is these constant changes and shifts that knowledge has always relied on, not stasis.


James Austin Farrell