Time to put a stop to hazing

You yell at someone. You insult them. You force them to eat or drink things you would never want to taste. You make them wear embarrassing clothes in public. You blindfold them and abandon them. You humiliate them.

And they are not even your enemies. They are not terrorists or hostages. They are just your younger friends at university.

Being coerced, humiliated and made the target of ridicule have been part of Thailand's university initiation rituals, or rub nong, for as long as we can remember. The recent death of a 17-year-old first-year student is sad yet solid proof that these activities are still conducted inappropriately and frequently cross the line.

Late last month, just a few weeks after the university semester started, Phokhai Saengrojrat, a freshman at Pathumthani Technical College, was found dead on Sai Noi Beach from an apparent hazing ritual in Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan. Before passing out, according to news reports, Phokhai was forced to consume what looked like an alcoholic drink. His face was pressed against the sand as the tide reached the shore. He is suspected to have suffocated.

There were 40 freshmen in Phokhai's class, but only 15 were willing to take part in the hazing. Doctors from the Police General Hospital's Institute of Forensic Medicine who conducted an autopsy on Phokhai's body said he suffered respiratory and blood circulatory failure. Phokhai's parents said he had once suffered from leukaemia, but even without any trace of the disease present in his body, was still likely to easily develop exhaustion and encounter breathing difficulties.

Phokhai was an only child. For his parents, the loss is unbearable. The university is still probing the case and the director of the college is under investigation.

Chaiyapruek Serirak, secretary general of the Office of the Vocational Education Commission, said all kinds of rub nong rituals are strictly prohibited. Student representatives from the Youth Network for New Face Drinker Prevention submitted a letter to prime minister and chief of the National Council for Peace and Order Prayuth Chan-ocha, asking for a strict investigation and punishment for those students who organised the hazing and were responsible for the death of Phokhai, in order to prevent history from repeating itself.

University is all about new learning, new experiences, new friends and excitement. Freshmen introduce themselves and are introduced to new people — mates, seniors and teachers. They gradually blend into the academic institution at which they are going to spend the next four years — a place that will shape their lives.

Admittedly, university study has changed tremendously in the past decade. Back in the old days, a majority of Thai universities did not offer international programmes. Today many of them do. In the past, the only way students could keep up with lessons was to attend class lectures and take notes. Today if they miss classes, lessons are available online. Pens and paper are almost on the endangered list. Tablets and gadgets are the new black.

Modern universities offer a very large number of creative and positive ideas to parents and students alike. But initiation rituals are among certain things that have changed the least. In an age when modern students shun conservativeness and strive for freedom (to not wear uniforms to class, for instance), they still stick to one age-old tradition that actually takes away other people's liberties.

It has been claimed that university initiation activities have always been in place to instil a sense of harmony and respect among freshmen.

But how can coercion and aggressiveness teach lessons about friendship and seniority? How can you teach someone to love and honour when you yourself do not treat others in the manner you want to be treated?

At the end of the day, responsibilities lie partly with university authorities, who should set policies against hazing and should encourage positive ways for students to bond — perhaps team-building activities to boost a sense of belonging and unity.

There are a considerable number of ways to teach freshmen about harmony and respect without having to beat them to death or make them eat or drink disgusting stuff.

Phokhai was, of course, not the first death caused by university initiation rituals. But everyone wishes he be the last.

Arusa Pisuthipan is the Muse editor of the Bangkok Post. 

About the author

Writer: Arusa Pisuthipan
Position: Deputy editor of the Life section