College hazing gets stern penalty in military-ruled Thailand

College hazing gets stern penalty in military-ruled Thailand

Students from Bangkok's Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University are ordered to line up with their hands folded behind their backs during a three-day boot camp for hazing at university in Nakhon Nayok province. (AP photo)
Students from Bangkok's Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University are ordered to line up with their hands folded behind their backs during a three-day boot camp for hazing at university in Nakhon Nayok province. (AP photo)

At a military facility outside of Bangkok, a drill sergeant barks orders at a group of film students learning the hard way that creative licence has its limits in Thailand.

"You are here to learn discipline,'' the officer shouted. "Do you understand?''

"Yes, sir!'' shouted back the group of 53 aspiring artists -- boys with shaggy hair, girls with tattoos and yoga pants. "Discipline means respecting the rules and regulations,'' he told them. "If you misbehave, you must be punished.''

In military-ruled Thailand, this is how university hazing is handled. The offence: a video posted online that showed a half-dozen fully clothed freshman doing a couples dance. Social media dubbed it a "love-making dance''. The punishment: three days of boot camp for a new type of disciplinary punishment known as "attitude adjustment''.

The military junta that seized power over a year ago pioneered the idea of attitude adjustment as a technique to silence critics. The junta summons politicians and others who voice dissent to military bases where they are typically incarcerated several days, interrogated and made to "confess'' to their transgressions and sign a contract to not repeat them -- a practice that has been widely criticised by human rights groups.

Now there are signs that the mentality of military rule is being applied to civilian issues -- like college discipline.

For the students from the film school of Bangkok's Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University, a three-day boot camp included reprimands, public humiliation and a gruelling endurance test.

"We're not telling our film students don't make creative films, but in Thailand there are social limits. They need to be creative within the limits,'' said Chin Tangtarntana, a lecturer in cinematography and one of several professors who chaperoned the three-day session last month that included silent meals and group lodging on a barrack floor lined with mattresses. "We have to reset their clocks. That's why we're here, to rewind. We're saying, `Go back. Start over. OK, now be creative.'''

After a two-hour bus drive northeast of the capital to the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, a 33-square-kilometre facility surrounded by mountains, the students' mobile phones were confiscated to ensure no outside communication and primarily to prevent more videos, Mr Chin said.

"The activities that will take place here will be good for you, and help you to become civilised people. Do you understand?'' the drill sergeant, Sgt Maj Kongsak Klaeiklang, asked rhetorically. He led what he called an "ice-breaking'' session that bore close resemblance to hazing: An overweight female student was singled out as a "hippopotamus'' as others were told to "dance like hippos''. Team games ended with the losers ordered to "walk like elephants'', bent over in a human chain, clutching each other's hands between legs.

Then they were driven to a steamy, mosquito-infested jungle. Under a steady rainfall, the students were put through a different type of hazing.

Loud bangs exploded in the distance, and the students were ordered to run.

"Faster! Just keep breathing, you won't die,'' shouted Sgt Maj Kongsak, after one student nearly fainted and was allowed to sit on the sidelines. He then ordered them to "drop!'' and crawl on their stomachs through muddy puddles and at one point to hurdle a barricade of fire.

"The idea is to break them down. Break down their ego. Humiliate them. And then we build them back up,'' Sgt Maj Kongsak said, as soldiers led small groups on an arduous 5-kilometre jungle trek that included scaling rope ladders and balancing on swinging logs to cross a river.

The boot camp incident sparked little public uproar in a country where the education system has always had a militaristic streak -- public schools have mandatory uniforms, hair must be kept short and some teachers still wield bamboo canes to enforce discipline through secondary school. Problem teens in violent high-school gangs have been sent to boot camps in the past.

But using the military to punish university hazing is a new approach, which commentators say sends a chilling message that the military is needed to solve society's problems even at institutions of higher learning.

Critics say the hazing case highlights a trend toward militarisation of Thai society under the junta, where those in charge don't believe that attitude adjustment will actually brainwash people -- but the aim is to intimidate and discourage the outspoken from speaking out.

Prime Minister and head of the National Council for Peace and Order Prayut Chan-o-cha has launched a crackdown on dissent and has blocked public discussions about democracy. He regularly lashes out at those who question his authority and warns the public to stop asking for elections, which he says won't be held until 2017.

Hundreds of politicians, journalists, professors and other critics have been hauled in for attitude adjustment in the name of maintaining peace and order.

One journalist and two politicians were summoned to political detention.

Whether or not attitude adjustment works on students appears to depend on the individual.

An exhausted freshman, Natdanai Kedsanga, 20, ended the first day of boot camp with a realisation. "We were having too much fun, that was the problem,'' Mr Natdanai said about the video in which he was one of the dancers. "Now that I think about it, maybe it wasn't appropriate.''

Pongpat Puchiangdang, a university senior, said the attitude adjustment had taught him a lesson -- if you want to do something socially unacceptable just don't share it on social media. "Stuff like this happens everywhere at all schools, and sometimes it's even worse. They just don't post it online,'' said Mr Pongpat, a 22-year-old aspiring cameraman. "I don't think making that video was wrong. It's a good memory. We just shouldn't have publicised it.'' 

Jocelyn Gecker

AP Correspondent

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