Student activist forcibly removed . . .
Last month, Thai student activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal was forcibly removed from his position as President of Chulalongkorn University’s Student Union for inviting anti-monarchy student leaders and critics to a campus orientation event held in July. At the event, one of the speakers, fellow student activist Pharit 'Penguin' Chiwarak, raised his middle finger in defiance of the university’s administration, declaring that the university belonged to the students and the people. The Student Affairs Office at Chulalongkorn, Thailand’s oldest and highest-ranked university, claimed that Netiwit was complicit in organizing the event and inviting Pharit. This was not the first time Netiwit was removed from his position as president: In 2017, he was removed for walking out during an oath to King Rama VI at an initiation ceremony.
Freedoms beyond the ivory tower . . .
Netiwit’s removal is about much more than violating a university code of conduct. The effort to silence him reflects the Thai government’s heightened sensitivity to anti-establishment protests. Academic freedom in Thailand has been increasingly at risk; since the current wave of Thai protests kicked off in 2020, high schools and universities have been under attack by the government for considering alternative perspectives on Thai history and current affairs. In February, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha accused one high school of indoctrinating its students after inviting Thongchai Winichakul, a historian known for criticizing the Thai monarchy and its nationalist history, to consult with the school on pedagogical issues.
Potential light for justice . . .
The consequences for those engaging in political dissent against the Thai government are heavy. Pharit’s activism could get him a prison sentence of hundreds of years. But Thai netizens raised about C$387,000 to cover the C$77,000 required for his release from pre-trial detention, sending a message of hope to his supporters. As in many other countries, the pandemic has exposed cracks in the system, driving unemployment, economic contraction, and social unrest. For young Thais venting their frustrations against the establishment (and the monarchy) is the compounding factor of a broader backdrop of economic stagnation. As protests grow louder and the government’s hand comes down harder, the two sides will continue to battle it out for what they think is right for the people and future of Thailand.
- The Diplomat: Why is Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University afraid of academic freedom?
- The Guardian: The student, the Penguin and the king: Elite Thai university roiled by dissent
- Times Higher Education: Ejection of union president spotlights Thai generational divide