Headlocking beneath the ivory towers
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Headlocking beneath the ivory towers

A headlock says it all.

Well, you just can't manhandle your students like that, no matter how many wrestling matches you've watched or how detestable you find youthful activism. Physically restraining a student who might or might not have shown disrespect, by a professor of all people, and in a public gathering being observed by reporters? What can we expect next? Baptism by fire? A crucifixion?

Keep your handcuffs at the ready lads! The radicals have infiltrated the ivory tower!

Unfortunately, I wasn't good enough to attend Chulalongkorn University. Fortunately, too, I wasn't good enough to get in.

On a rainy Thursday, at the esteemed university, Supaluck Banrumgkit was captured by photographers as he was being dragged off the field by Ruengwit Bunjongrat, a lecturer who was overseeing the initiation ceremony, in which freshmen sat on the ground and prostrated themselves to pay respect to the statue of King Rama V. What had led to that ugly sight is a Rashomon-style debate that will not soon subside.

The activists, led by Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal and Mr Supaluck, said the university didn't keep its promise on designating an area for students who wished to pay their respects by bowing and not prostrating. They subsequently walked out at the end of the ceremony as a symbol of protest. A video clip also showed some professors shouting expletives at the students. The university then issued a statement and apologised for Mr Ruengwit's overreaction. But in a vague and quietly sinister tone, it blames Mr Supaluck and his group for breaking the agreement and "stage-managing" the scene to highlight the conflict between those who wanted to bow and those who wanted to prostrate.

Quickly the debate escalated, with the blame-game straining credulity. Chulalongkorn's deputy rector said the student activists "had planned" the spectacle for reporters in the hope of demonising the university. So the students included the headlock in their provocative script? The cursing from their professors too? Perhaps they seeded the clouds to provide the muck they were about to sling.

He also said that Mr Ruengwit, the aspiring pro-wrestler in question, was so stressed out by the episode that he was hospitalised -- forcing me to doublecheck who the headlocker and who the headlockee were.

Like everything in Thailand these days, the Chulalongkorn incident is symptomatic of a heavily polarised nation. Every dispute, every conflict, every argument reignites the debate between tradition and progress, between the reactionary and reformist, between the headlocker and headlocked. Even the most respected institute of higher learning, supposedly the nation's cradle of intellectualism, has become a mud-filled, gladiatorial pit where underdog fighters face the wrath of their Roman rulers. They got the thumbs-down and look what happened.

Our post-truth era means every side has its own version of what really happened -- the two sides can't even agree if it was drizzling or showering when the scuffle happened. But what's indisputable was the physical aggression of the lecturer. If his actions go unpunished, it will set a precedent.

To blame the students for having provoked the reaction, as the university insinuated, is petty and undignified, all the more so when it comes from officialdom. And now the mudslingers are quick to bang on about how the activists are fouling the century-old institution's image with their activism, and again they're throwing that tired, unproven and totally absurd accusation that the young activists are on the payroll of Thailand's own Lord Voldemort. But really, who's fouling the image of the institution: Raging professors or battered students?

This won't be the last of it. As far as the establishment is concerned, Mr Netiwit and his friends are the Trojan Horse now ensconced in Troy. For Mr Netiwit and Mr Supaluck, who've been elected as executives of the university's student council (leaving the old guard to seethe), they're fighting a long war whose implications are felt beyond the campus. In Thai society, teenagers who speak up, walk out and question what hasn't been questioned for decades are viewed as insolent, attention-seeking and all-around detestable.

And that's fine. A university should be a battleground for ideological contests. What isn't fine is anger manifesting itself through violence. Without being alarmist, sometimes it's good to remember that Oct 6, 1976 didn't happen in a vacuum. One thing lead to another, and another, and then to something that could never be undone.

Kong Rithdee is Life Editor, Bangkok Post.

Kong Rithdee

Bangkok Post columnist

Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.

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