When I read a while back that Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal -- a young political activist, was going to Chulalongkorn University, it struck me as inconceivable.
What went through my mind was: "What? Netiwit's going to Chula? Hot oil and water do not mix. It's not gonna end well."
For those not familiar with the name, Netiwit -- nicknamed "Nehneh" as he is affectionately called by his friends -- comes through as a nerdy-looking guy who sports a pair of colour-framed glasses.
A son of small shopkeepers in Samut Prakan, he has this ability of saying or doing things that often cause right-wingers to froth at the mouth.
What they probably find maddening about him is that he speaks softly and logically without being emotional, but he often hits hard at their belief systems.
Chula, as the university is called for short, is known as an ultra-conservative institution where people in high society often wish their sons and daughters to enrol at.
It prides itself for being the very first university in Thailand, established under the auspices of King Rama VI.
Mr Netiwit made a name for himself at a young age. As a secondary pupil, he actively campaigned for education and democratic reforms. School hair and dress codes are among the issues that have come under his sharp critiques. They are superfluous and not conducive to education, he says.
What riles the ultra-conservatives includes his criticism of the requirement for pupils to honour the flag every morning and his insistence on being a conscientious objector against the draft.
But it turns out that while the university administrators seem to have got stuck in the past, much of the student body has decided to move on and adopt a more progressive outlook.
To the consternation of the university authorities, Mr Netiwit was elected by the Student Council to be its president while still in his first year.
And sure enough, a few months afterward, he and seven other students walked out of the ceremony to pay homage to the statues of Rama V and Rama VI as other students prostrating on the ground in the rain looked on.
For that act of defiance, the university through its student affairs office docked 25 behavioural points from the students' record, which had the effect of stripping Mr Netiwit of his position.
He and friends fought back, filing a complaint with the Administrative Court which later found the penalty lacking justification and told the administrators to reinstate him.
In 2020, he became the president of the Political Science student union. Toward the end of his one-year stint, he filed an application as a candidate for the presidency of the Student Government (SGCU) and went on to win a landslide victory with over 70% of the more than 14,000 students who voted.
During this period, he initiated multiple projects to memorialise several alumni who were victimised in past political events, including the Oct 6, 1976, student massacre at Thammasat University.
Most notably, he launched an activity to restore the name of Jit Phumisak, a much-acclaimed intellectual, writer, poet, linguist, political activist, and a Chula alumnus in the 1950s, who like Mr Netiwit was a rebel during his time.
Mr Netiwit is also a severe critic of the university for its commercial exploitation of its properties, questioning whether its business-oriented activities have overridden its mission in education.
He caused an uproar in October last year when the SGCU of which he was president decided to drop the parade of Chula's symbol Phra Kieo from the traditional football match with Thammasat University.
His activities have been closely monitored by the more conservative elements inside the university, particularly those in the student affairs office.
So it came to pass that the office too the chance to get back at him after the SGCU organised a freshman orientation last year.
The activity featured three controversial figures -- lecturer-in-exile Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Ratsadon protest leaders Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak and Panusaya "Rung" Sitthijirawattanakul -- who appeared in video clips as guest speakers. All three have faced lese majeste charges.
It was accused that the speeches contained foul language and gestures unbecoming of Thai culture and tradition. The activity also did not have the university authorities' prior approval.
For this offence, Mr Netiwit, as SGCU president, and a deputy were given a deduction of 10 disciplinary points as penalty, enough to cause Mr Netiwit to lose his presidency.
Rules and regulations notwithstanding, the administration's action was quite transparent in its vindictiveness.
To the ultra conservatives inside and outside the university, Mr Netiwit is a rabble rouser and a trouble maker. It's useless to debate the merits of his ideas or action. It's best that he be prevented from doing or saying anything in public lest he causes irreparable damage to society.
But that's where their faults lie. It's the same mentality the military-controlled government employs to deal with the opposition. Anything that causes the opposition trouble is a good thing no matter how nasty or illegitimate.
Mr Netiwit may be a rebel, but he's a rebel with a good cause. He and friends want to see the reformation of archaic education, social and political systems which, if one considers them fairly, badly need an overhaul.
His action and words are offensive only because the "adults" stay stuck in the past with its much-cherished culture, customs and traditions, and refuse to acknowledge that some parts of the past are no longer relevant in the modern age.
Instead, these "adults" behave like bullies against those not subscribing to their defined set of values. They talk democracy but act authoritarian.
Fear of change governs their behaviour. The more people cry out for change, the more paranoid they become. And that's the real cause for concern.