University uniforms challenge – And academic freedom

Thailand’s Thammasat University, one of the few in the country that does not require students to wear uniforms, has sparked a nationwide debate after a student launched a provocative campaign challenging the need for uniforms in higher education. Now the matter has taken a new turn, transforming into an academic freedom issue.

The controversial campaign involving racy posters at the Thammasat University campus in Bangkok was led by Saran Chuichai (20), a transgender student at the university known by her nickname ‘Aum Neko’.

The posters depicting Aum and another student in provocative poses had to be taken down two days after they first went up at the institution’s Rangsit campus in early September, as the university authorities viewed them as inappropriate.

Rector Somkit Lertpaithoon has said disciplinary action would be taken against Aum. Somkit also told local media that the university would appoint a “special commission” to investigate the situation.

However, Aum said the purpose of the posters was to question taboo issues in Thai society – sex, and uniforms – and to start a debate.

Thailand is one of the few countries – others include Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – that still require students to wear uniforms at the higher education level, usually black trousers or skirts and a white shirt.

Enforcement can vary at different universities, and is often up to the lecturers. In some cases, students are barred from exams unless they are wearing proper uniforms, and there have also been cases of lecturers not allowing students into university buildings unless a uniform is worn.

At Thammasat, uniforms are not compulsory according to the institution’s regulations. Somkit said in remarks to local media that the institution only “encourages” students to wear the uniform, particularly during the exam season, “to teach them about the virtue of discipline”.

However, for a first-year compulsory course titled “Integrated Science and Technology”, a Thammasat professor insisted that students who were not in uniform would not be allowed to sit for quizzes and examinations, sparking Aum’s campaign.


“The reason I entered Thammasat University was because of its spirit and well-known slogan ‘Thammasat is free every inch’ [of its space],” Aum told University World News.

She was referring to Thammasat’s reputation as the ‘freest’ of all Thai universities, allowing students to think and act as they like.

“Students are not required to wear uniforms, but in reality lecturers in many classes still have compulsory uniforms,” she said. “Even the library in the faculty of business had a sign ‘No Uniform, No Service’.”

Aum also described her protest against uniforms as a “struggle for the fundamental freedoms of students”. She believes uniforms at the higher education level violate student freedoms “even if most students do not realise it”.

A survey of 1,300 students in Bangkok by Suan Dusit Rajabhat University, conducted from 14-19 September and asking for their opinions on compulsory uniforms, found that 94% of students viewed them as necessary “to maintain order and uniqueness”.

Liberal university?

The posters were widely regarded as overstepping the mark in Thailand’s conservative society. But Thai commentators have also questioned whether Thammasat is abandoning its democratic roots, broadening the debate beyond student attire.

Thammasat is regarded as a symbol for freedom and democracy in Thai society. It was founded by People’s Party leader Pridi Panomyong, a year after he led a revolution in 1932 that transformed Thailand from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.

Thammasat students also played an important role in the student-led uprising against dictatorship in 1973.

During the early 1960s, the university was under the governance of General Thanom Kittikachorn, who later in the decade became prime minister.

He transformed Thammasat University from an open university with over 35,000 students, to a more select institution accepting around 1,000 students. Student uniforms were introduced, with the university citing the need at the time to separate students from outsiders for “security reasons”.

Salisa Yuktanan, a Thammasat sociology lecturer, said that in her view student uniforms were part of an authoritarian society in which students – who are adults – cannot choose what to wear in their everyday lives.

“It is a way to confine people,” she told University World News, even though uniforms serve to underline the integrity of those considered ‘fortunate’ enough to wear them. In addition, it “separates the ‘educated classes’ from ordinary people and unnecessarily divides society”.

Uniforms were introduced when Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University was founded by the monarchy in 1899 to produce civil servants. The uniforms were a symbol of the old establishment and also distinguished students as a distinct class in society, said Salisa.

While there have been debates in the past about relaxing the policy, recently Chulalongkorn University came up with new rules stating that not wearing proper uniforms could lead to a black mark for behaviour, which could lead to parents or guardians being called in for a meeting, or even suspension of a student for a semester. In extreme cases it could even be grounds for expulsion.

Serious consequences

But the debate has also taken a sinister turn, as it divided conservatives and liberals in Thai society, reaching beyond the confines of universities.

Some right-leaning groups regard Aum’s uniform campaign as an attack on the establishment and on tradition.

With the publicity over the poster campaign catapulting Aum into the public eye, Porntipa Supattanukul, a TV host at the conservative channel 13 Siam Thai, filed a lawsuit against Aum for violating the country’s lèse majesté law – Article 112 of the Criminal Code.

Porntipa said she had interviewed Aum for her TV show a few months ago, and was shocked that Aum spoke about the monarchy in a negative way. So she decided to pass the ‘evidence’ to the police.

The ‘evidence’ included items from Aum’s Facebook page, where Aum commented on censorship, academic freedom and the monarchy.

Thailand’s Technology Crime Suppression Division accepted the charge, saying that it would set up a working group to investigate if Aum’s behaviour was also a violation of the Computer Crime Act, which is often used to file charges against dissidents, together with the harsh lèse majesté law, for online posts deemed to defame the monarchy.

In recent years, the law has been used against a number of students and academics for writing critical comments or articles about the monarchy.

They include a student at Thammasat University, Natthakarn, and a student blogger from Kasetsart University, Norrawase. History professor Somsak Jeamterrasakul from Thammasat University and Suraphot Thaweesak, a philosophy lecturer at Suan Dusit Rajabhat University in Hua Hin, have also been charged in recent years.