Getting through a dangerous haze

Getting through a dangerous haze

The strange rituals at universities in Chiang Mai are meant to instil a sense of unity, but critics say they are humiliating and have damaging consequences. By Nattha Thepbamrung

As a freshman, Panuwad Hongsawatchai felt the wrath of his fellow students at Maejo University in Phrae when he refused to be part of its traditional hazing ceremonies intended to absorb him into campus life.

He refused to be part of the Sotus (Seniority, Order, Tradition, Unity and Spirit) induction and started a Facebook page outlining the ceremonies - many of them humiliating - that new students faced as part of university life.

He explained that during freshmen's week, students must follow strange rituals such as dressing only in black and wearing Nanyang brand sport shoes. They are not allowed to carry any valuable personal belongings, not even a telephone.

Male students are banned from riding behind female cyclists and motorcyclists. Some faculties prohibit relationships, with students restricted to their dormitories outside study hours. Even when they want to leave the university campus, they have to seek approval from senior students who specify how long they can be away for. Those who break the rules are punished. Some of the rituals are enforced through the entire first year.

The freshmen are also forced to wear a tag carrying their student ID number, and punishment comes in the form of being shouted at and humiliated by senior students and being forced into "silly acts" such as dancing in the canteen, dressing in funny costumes or doing push-ups.

"I have disagreed with it since my first year at university," said Mr Panuwad, 20, who is in his second year and is secretary-general of the Anti-Sotus group.

"I refused to become involved in any of the activities of the university or my faculty, which later caused problems for me. There were social sanctions and I was criticised a lot. I was ostracised as I posted some of the university's secrets on Facebook a few days before I started my university life. They said information such as the rules and the 'welcoming traditions' are all secret but I think they are human rights violations."


The Sotus system has its roots in US military cadet schools dating back to the mid 19th century, where it was considered a useful method to instil camaraderie in students and help seniors control unruly freshmen. As overseas students filtered through the American education system after World War II, the practice was picked up and mimicked in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and the Philippines.

It was first introduced to Kasetsart University in 1953, and was used as a "welcoming ceremony" in Thai universities for decades until it eventually petered out as a more liberal approach to education was adopted.

Nowadays, a more benign form of freshmen's week focusing on fun and interaction exists at the majority of Thai universities. But the extreme version is still in place at some rural institutions and vocational colleges.

Kasetsart and Chiang Mai universities have been at the heart of controversies surrounding Sotus, with complaints dating back 20 years of students being burned with irons as punishment and being forced to perform sexual acts. Hazing ceremonies have also lead to several deaths.

The abuses were listed in the 2000 book Wag Nong, (Scolding Freshmen), by Thanet Charoenmuang, a lecturer at the Faculty of Sociology, Chiang Mai University, who named the first month of the academic year "Black June".

For students at Maejo's Phrae campus, the complaints are just as real today, Mr Panuwad said.

The the Anti-Sotus group, started in 2010, has almost 5,000 online members.

"Actually, an online group before that had about 15,000 members but it was reported and closed," Mr Panuwad said. "We started this again and we're trying to get all the members back.

"Our activities mainly focus on creating networks in universities around the country, setting up clubs in universities to support freshers who suffer from the 'welcoming tradition' as well as those who were banned by seniors. Now we have students from around 20 universities who have joined us."


Circle of trust: A hazing ritual similar to the one practised at universities in Chiang Mai and Phrae.

Titiphon Yamsri is a journalism graduate from Thammasat University. Prior to that he was studying engineering at a top university, but his experiences of Sotus forced him to change.

He said while the hazing he underwent was not "rude or dangerous" he could not accept that other students would not recognise his rights as a fellow human being.

"I joined the activities for a few days before realising that they finished very late and affected my studying, so I quit," he said. "After I quit, I was criticised by some of the freshmen who enjoyed the activities and they stopped talking to me."

While he could tolerate senior students shouting at him, he could not stand the banal university sloganeering students were forced to endure in the "cheering room" where students practise the institution's songs.

Show your colours: Freshmen at universities across Thailand are often subjected to strange initiation rituals, but students claim the practices in universities in northern Thailand cross the line.

"The event that I think was over the top was when my friend and I were having lunch and we couldn't eat because the seniors wanted us to get into the cheering room. We had an argument and almost a fight. I didn't think it was fair that they forced us to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted."

Mr Titiphon said those doing the hazing rationalised their behaviour by explaining that they were preparing the freshmen for life in the real world where they would have to listen to their employers. He said that they were told that if they did not follow the instructions, they would not have the support of other seniors and their futures at the university would be tough.

"I have worked for seven years for different companies and also as a freelancer," Mr Titiphon said. "I have never experienced anything like what they said to me that day."

This same logic of a patronage system offering protection and benefits to those who fall into line and do not buck the system was also offered to Mr Panuwad. At the final ceremony of freshmen's week, second-year students formed a ring with the first-year students inside, where they would protect them from marauding seniors trying to breach the circle.

"It may be a kind of symbolic activity showing that seniors will protect the juniors," he said. "They set the freshers in the middle of the second years who organised the event. Senior students tried to get inside and take the freshers out. The second years tried their best to keep them away and sometimes people got hurt. Some of the higher-year seniors were also drunk and violent."


torture claims: Patiparn Inya-po was among those who have been injured in the past.

Boonyapat Krachang is the president of the engineering faculty's student club at Chiang Mai University and is in his fourth year of studies. He believes the benefits of Sotus far outweigh what he says are minor disadvantages. "Our faculty has Sotus to teach our juniors to respect the seniors and teachers. It also teaches morals and brings harmony among them," Mr Boonyapat said.

"One of the few disadvantages I see is the time involved. The students have to spend their evenings in the cheering room or do activities with their new friends, but this will give them connections with friends and seniors."

He insisted his faculty did not force freshmen to partake in Sotus. Those who complete the Sotus freshmen year are given a uniform at the end.

Those who don't have to participate in Sotus events in their second year and help seniors welcome the new crop of first years.

Mr Boonyapat defended the practice of shouting at freshmen, saying it was not a way of displaying power but instead a method of controlling 800 new intakes. He added that singing the faculty song three days a week and participating in activities such as sporting events were intended to create harmony.

He said there were no anti-Sotus freshmen in his faculty and everyone joined the activities willingly.

Anipa, a staff member responsible for freshmen at Maejo University, which also has a strong Sotus tradition, said the practice was about creating equality rather than violating people's rights.

"We still have a strong tradition and a ceremony that we continue from generation to generation," she said.

"The purpose of the ceremony is to make everyone stay together equally. Our university began with students who were from poor farming families. Nowadays, we have many different kinds of students. Some of them are from rich families and drive Mercedes to university, use expensive phones and wear brand-name clothes, while some students from very poor families come on public transport from their village in the mountains. Some of them are from families of 10 or 12 people and they are happy that their kids can get into a university."

Ms Anipa said students from diverse backgrounds were randomly put into a university dormitory where they have to learn to adapt and live with others.

"Some students do not have much money to feed themselves," she said. "They have to apply for a job as a security guard in the university while some of them wash and iron clothes for their fellow students to get 20-30 baht to eat. When children from rich families see something like this they see the value of the money they spend, and sometimes help their friends with some money or food."

Forcing students to dress in black and wear the same footwear and banning personal items and valuables during freshmen's week was a way to instil a sense of egalitarianism.

"We have strict rules like this because we want them to see that they are equals when they wear the same outfit and have no brand-name goods," she said. "The activities during the week are actually not tough but we just want them to know each other and love each other."

She said if the students have a valid medical reason or need to be exempted because of family reasons they are always excused.


intimidation tactics: A clip from the short film 'Vicious Cycle', which tells the story of a freshman standing up to the bullying of seniors.

Thanaruk Suwanprapisa, vice-president of student development at CMU, said there are two types of welcoming ceremonies: an official orientation organised by university staff, and another organised by senior students at individual faculties.

He said activities for freshmen must be approved by the university board. Outside authorities, teachers and parents were welcome to observe them.

"Before undertaking any activity, second-year students who normally set out the activities for freshmen have to report the activity's details to the university and the faculty's dean and board who consider its appropriateness," he said.

"The cheering room must be closed at 8pm sharp and at 9pm everyone must be back in their accommodation. After 9pm, we have university officers patrolling around the area to check."

He conceded there were unsupervised activities involving "sub groups" of students from the same province, school or "groups of third-gender students".

"We are trying to get these underground groups in the system as student clubs," Mr Thanaruk said.

He said no first-year students could be forced to participate in Sotus if they felt it was inconvenient. "We do not force them to do it," he said. "Deciding not to join does not affect their study life."

He accepted that abstainers may be socially ostracised and said the university offered support.

"I understand seniors may have a way to try making all freshmen join in the activities - like psychological social sanctions - but we have a call centre and staff standing by to help them.

"Any freshman who has a problem can file their complaint to us."

Mr Thanaruk said the system worked quite well and there had been no complaints from freshmen this semester.

Previous problems he recalled included a conflict between seniors and transgender students over dress regulations, and an unfit student who was injured when forced to exercise.


rough initiation: A clip from 'Vicious Cycle' shows seniors controlling freshmen.

Former CMU humanities student Aroonakorn Pick, 25, is not convinced of the benefits of the Sotus system. In 2012, he released a short film called Vicious Cycle which tells the story of a freshman standing up to the bullying and intimidation of seniors. Ultimately, the hero Ken beats them with logic by explaining that induction and indoctrination won't help the students get ahead in life.

"I personally don't like the Sotus system that people are using," he told Spectrum. "I think we all have our right to choose to do anything. The Sotus system seniors are deploying is a way to oppress the freshers' thoughts. They force newcomers to listen and follow without questioning."

He said that the purported benefits of the Sotus system of connection and protection were counterproductive to an individual's intellectual development.

"It teaches you to listen, follow the seniors and think less," he said. "This system makes people develop in the same way and become poor thinkers because they do not want to be nonconformist.

"I do not think Sotus itself has anything good as long as the seniors can force their freshers to do and think as they want without asking questions. It does not help develop anything. It may help the juniors to be kept together in order and break the ice between them for a while, but in the long term people will be who they are. You cannot force anyone to love someone or respect someone."

Mr Titiphon said he found real freedom and respect for his fellow students when he transferred to Thammasat. There, the welcome was genuine.

"At the new place I also joined some of the welcoming ceremonies like the freshmen's camp or seniors' signature hunting," he said. "It is an activity that helped us get to know the senior students names and we were not forced to do it.

"Those who did not want to join in never suffered social sanctions or being ostracised. Nowadays, I still have seniors who I respect and we keep in contact and help each other. The respect I have for them is from how they acted towards me, not because they shouted or threatened me."

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