Lost in the haze
Despite widespread publicity and condemnation, dangerous and abusive hazing practices persist at many schools across Southeast Asia
Riding on a train that stops at stations where alumni wait to greet you is a pleasant initiation rite that provides a sense of welcome and acceptance for young university students, some of whom have never been away from the comfort of home and parents before.
However, physical torture, verbal cruelty, sexual abuse and even death also make headlines with depressing regularity in Southeast Asian societies, where hazing rituals that reinforce hierarchy and authoritarianism go unchecked by authorities.
Thankfully, such abuses rarely occur at Chiang Mai University, where the annual Rub Nong Rot-Fai or "initiation train" helps freshmen ease into their new lives.
"I felt very warm and welcomed by the alumni who participated and I felt like they were friends that could give me advice about life at the university and the various activities that are offered on the campus," graduate Naphanan Ployjirachai told Asia Focus, recalling her experience.
"We year ones came from all regions of the country, and we can sometimes feel lonely and unsure about life in a new place since we had just left our homes, but the alumni made us feel like there were people we could talk to. Some of them remain friends all the way up to graduation and until now."
Freshman initiation with a constructive side: Students from the Uthen Thawai campus of Rajamangala University of Technology Tawan-ok clean a barrier near Siam Square as part of their freshmen welcoming activity. Photo: Chanat Katanyu
In the Rub Nong Rot-Fai event, the school's freshmen board a train at Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok and ride all the way to Chiang Mai, greeted along the way by alumni of various ages who board the train to chat and pass on their experience and wisdom.
This is just one of the examples of how a university initiation can be positive and productive, but unfortunately there are more examples of rituals that are anything but that. One of the most recent high-profile victims of hazing gone wrong in Thailand was Chokchai Thongnuakhao. The details of the incident remain almost as murky as the pond in which it occurred, but there is no disputing the outcome.
On a hot day in mid-September this year, the 19-year-old International Maritime Studies student was told by senior students at the university to clean off in a large pond as part of the rub nong ritual. Whether there was an explicit order remains unclear.
It would have been all fun and games until Mr Chokchai nearly drowned while swimming as his strength failed him before he could reach the other side. He said later that he had got a cramp while in the water. He ended up being taken to Chon Buri Hospital instead.
Mr Chokchai was put on a ventilator for more than a week and doctors told his parents that their son's brain might be permanently damaged, but he eventually made a good recovery. However, doctors told his family that they would have to continue to monitor his brain activity for any sign of damage in the year to come.
Mr Chokchai, 19, said he was unconscious for three days in hospital. His doctor, who declined to be identified, said the dirty pond water had caused an inflammation of the lung.
"As a freshman, I had to do what my seniors told me to," Mr Chokchai told Reuters recently, a month after his scare.
No charges were pressed against the senior students or the university by Mr Chokchai's family as his parents were willing to "forgive them all", as his father, Amporn Thongnuakhao, told Khaosod English. The rector of the university offered nothing more than an apology and the excuse that the student had not been forced to swim, while one of the senior students simply brushed the incident aside, saying they were just teasing him.
Other examples of extreme hazing include seniors dripping candle wax over a freshman's arms, or forcing them to freefall face-first into water or mud, Panuwat Songsawatchai, a member of a group that campaigns against hazing, told Reuters recently.
"How has the Education Ministry let this go on for so long?" said Panuwat, a member of the group ANTI-SOTUS, which has 77,000 followers on Facebook.
SOTUS stands for Seniority, Order, Tradition, Unity and Spirit, a campus code that students say justifies hazing.
The rub nong ritual first appeared in Thailand in the late 1940s, modelled on practices at universities in the United States -- hardly a shining example, as deaths related to violent hazing rituals in the US have occurred every year since 1969, says Hank Nuwer, an American writer and founding board member of HazingPrevention.com, who has written four books about hazing rituals in the US.
Mr Chokchai was actually one of the lucky freshmen compared with some of his peers elsewhere in Southeast Asia. In 2007, Mohammad Naim Mustaqim Mohamad Sobri, 16, died after an alleged hazing in a top Malaysian military boarding school which included savage kicks to the midsection.
In the same year in Thailand, a freshman was burned alive after he was told to roll around on a bonfire while in 2008, a student from another university in Thailand also died from injuries sustained during a hazing session. According to Reuters, Thailand has reported at least five deaths from hazing in the past 10 years.
In 2012, a law student in the Philippines, Marc Andre Marcos aged 20, died as he was allegedly beaten to death by members of his fraternity. A report by Yoly Villanueva-Ong, cofounder of a Philippine-based marketing communications company called Campaigns & Grey, shows that there has been at least one death related to violent hazing every year in the Philippines since 2000.
In 2013, Fikri Dolas Mantya Surya, a freshman at a university in Indonesia, died during a four-day hazing ritual at Goa Cina beach on the southern coast of East Java. After being barred from drinking water on an 80-kilometre journey and beaten up by senior students for making snarky comments during the four-day ritual, on the day of his death, Fikri had been made to climb a hill but then collapsed and died of asphyxiation when he reached the top.
In 2014, a 16-year-old Thai student, Pokai Saengrojrat, who had been diagnosed with leukaemia and respiratory problems, died following a night of hazing with 40 students from a university in Pathum Thani. Witnesses told police that they saw the students making campfires and drinking by Sai Noi beach in Prachuap Khiri Khan province while freshmen were being lined up and kicked into the water one by one by senior students until one of them never got up again.
In June of the same year in the Philippines, Guillo Cesar Servando, aged 18, was beaten to death with a paddle and a belt during a violent initiation ritual.
LINKS TO BULLYING
Wanchai Chaiyasit, a licensed school psychologist, sees links between bullying in the early years of school and violent hazing rituals in university.
"Practices of student hierarchy and seniority in secondary school could lead to violent hazing rituals in university and in fact what I see is that it is working both ways," he said.
"If student hierarchy is practised in a proper way, meaning not overly forceful or too authoritative, then it is okay in a Thai school because it is part of our values to respect elders, but I think what has been happening in many schools, based on my observation and experience, is that they are practising it too formally and forcefully," added Mr Wanchai, who is also deputy executive director at Rose Marie Academy International School and vice-chairman of the licensing board for clinical psychologists with the Public Health Ministry.
By "both ways" he means that seniors who are doing the bullying or older students who are forcing authority on younger ones in secondary schools will continue to practise and wrongly demand respect in university. At the same time, he said, young people who were bullied in secondary school might also seek retaliation once they become seniors at the university level; this is known as internalising aggression.
"Respect cannot be demanded since it has to come from the willingness and sincerity to respect and what has been happening, especially in big schools, is that some older groups of students have been assigned, with authority from teachers, to help to look after younger ones. This could be a good thing if they are monitored correctly and closely but most of the time, they are not," he said.
"By nature students are teenagers and they like to have power, especially students that come from a weak family structure where they are weak by themselves but they want to show their authority. This could sometimes lead to the overuse of their authority over younger students by asserting that they have the right, given to them by teachers and school regulations, to do so. That is where bullying comes in and I think where [violent hazing rituals] all started."
Mr Wanchai said schools should properly monitor such abusive practices while equipping themselves with school psychologists to properly respond to situations in which the mental health of students was endangered.
He told Asia Focus that the Education Ministry was currently looking at the possibility of adding the position of school psychologist in more Thai schools. Many schools have counsellors but most of them lack the training to deal with psychological problems such as the effects of bullying because they are not licensed psychologists, and in any case they are overwhelmed with regular teaching duties.
"When I practise counselling I always tell the children that I am not a teacher, I am a counsellor, and that has to be very clear since the school counsellors that we now have in Thai schools end up doing teaching and guidance more than personal or group counselling, which the students need in school to prevent problems such as bullying and forceful assertion of authority by seniority," he said.
"Big schools might not be able to do personal counselling as much as smaller schools so the alternative is group counselling and this is a job for a school psychologist," he said. "The Ministry of Education along with the Public Health Ministry have agreed to work together to produce school psychologists and they have already created a pilot programme a few years ago."
Mr Wanchai said the pilot programmes at selected primary and secondary schools in Thailand began in 2012 and had proved successful, and now the two ministries are starting to train more school psychologists to match future demand for the position.
Proper monitoring of bullying in school, or bully-free programmes, are a start, he said. But proper monitoring of initiation rituals in universities, where teachers actually check on details of what will transpire and the outcomes, are also needed to prevent violence and improper hazing, he added.
Ben King, New Zealand's ambassador to Thailand, said violent hazing rituals are challenging for all universities since, besides education, parents expect the safety for their children. Universities and the communities they serve have to work together to condemn such behaviours and to make sure that such incidents do not occur in educational institutions.
"The university and the community have to work together and I think it's got to be done institution by institution. They have to set really clear expectations of their students and if those expectations are not lived up to, then they have to do something about it," he told Asia Focus.
Cutting grades for minor offences or expulsion for major offences during hazing rituals is something that is needed because universities "have to take a pretty tough approach to change violent culture", he said. Each institution needs to come up with its own way of disciplining those who engage in unacceptable behaviour because each society is different.
Mr Wanchai also suggested that society and the media should put more pressure on institutions that do not seriously clamp down on violent hazing rituals. As well, he said, more awareness needs to be created because "early prevention is better than treatment".