Students campaign for boycott of graduation ceremonies

University student activists in Thailand are campaigning to boycott university graduation ceremonies as a symbol of civil disobedience against the monarchy – an institution once highly regarded as untouchable and beyond criticism.

The move comes against the backdrop of calls to reform Thailand’s monarchy led by students and youth groups beginning in 2020.

The student union of northern Chiang Mai University (CMU) last month launched a weeks-long campaign to boycott the university’s graduation events, saying a ceremony where royalty bestows the degrees encourages the “feudalist culture and system” that reinforces inequality.

The king or other members of the royal family usually preside over Thai universities’ graduation ceremonies while bestowing the diplomas upon the graduates, involving long hours of rehearsals and strict security surrounding the events.

“The campaign started when I was advised against attending the ceremony as I was charged with a lèse-majesté offence for giving speeches at political rallies in August 2021. The university authorities viewed me attending [the graduation event] as inappropriate,” Thanatorn Tae Vitayabenjang vice president of the CMU student union, which led the boycott campaign, told University World News.

Thailand has draconian lèse-majesté laws against insulting the monarchy which can lead to up to 15 years in prison.

“In discussions, student union members said the ceremony itself was an act of discrimination, creating divisions and stigmatising those who could not or choose not to attend. The principle behind it is that there are different classes among the people,” Thanatorn said.

A pamphlet circulating on CMU’s graduation ceremony day on 14 January said: “Rejecting the graduation ceremony disrupts the feudal cycle. While many people in the country, under the ruthless power of the monarchy, are unjustly imprisoned for their good intentions to change society, why should we accept a ceremony that accommodates royal power without recognising our fellow human beings facing injustice?”

The CMU student union also declared it would not send student representatives to attend the royal reception on the same date, a part of the graduation ceremony that involves students prostrating themselves in front of the king, queen or other members of the royal family to welcome them on entering the campus.

Arrests as ceremony attendance drops

On 14 January, CMU students Yotsunthon Ruttapradid and Phimchanok Jaihong, members of the activist group Thalufah, were arrested close to the university auditorium while a graduation ceremony was being held.

They were reported to have held up banners saying “Repeal Section 112” (the lèse-majesté law) and “Feudal degrees” to call on graduates to boycott the ceremony presided over by Princess Sirindhorn, the king’s younger sister. The students were later fined and released.

According to official university figures, only 40% of CMU’s graduating students took part in the ceremony last month while previously attendance was around 60% to 70%, compared to much higher attendance years ago.

Part of the reason was that the pandemic restrictions required students to take a COVID-19 PCR test costing approximately THB2,000 (US$60), adding to the financial cost of the ceremony paid by students, Thanatorn explained.

“It is now not unusual for students to no longer be into such traditional ceremonies as [notions of] equality are replacing such outdated values. The ceremony is more complicated with the pandemic situation, security matters and increasing the financial burden; many students think that the sanctity and the value of receiving their diplomas from the royal family are no longer worth it,” he said.

For Bangkok’s Thammasat University, which saw student activists leading the campaign to boycott the ceremony in 2020, the proportion of students attending the graduation event also dropped to around 40% from an average of 60% to70% per year, according to the official university data – a drop similar to that at CMU.

The boycott campaign gained traction as criticisms of the royal family became increasingly vocal, while student and youth leaders of the pro-democracy protests continued to be in pre-trial detention for more than four months under lèse-majesté offences.

Student protest leaders such as Parit Chiwarak of the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (UFTD) have been in prison for more than four months.

In August 2020, UFTD leaders, in a landmark speech which “breaks the political ceiling”, released a 10-point manifesto which included calls to reform the monarchy, such as revoking the lèse-majesté law, reducing the amount of the national budget allocated to the king to be in line with the economic conditions of the country, and ceasing the exercise of royal prerogative over expression of political opinions in public.

Pro-royalists push back

The latest student campaigns have sparked debate in the country, especially on social media, as well as pushback from royalists.

A famous public figure, Lalita Teerasiri, a homeopathy doctor, said she and many business owners discussed not hiring graduates who refused to attend the graduation ceremony and were not photographed being handed their degrees.

Senator Somchai Sawangkarn, a conservative, in a social media post called for the dissolution of the Chiang Mai University student union and for the university council to take action against the students who led the boycott campaign.

Since November 2020, when the lèse-majesté law was revived after a long hiatus, a total of 169 individuals in 175 cases have been charged with the offence, according to the legal aid group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR).

In 2021, a 65-year-old woman was sentenced to 87 years’ imprisonment, later reduced to 43 years, over audio clips she uploaded and disseminated to social media platforms which were deemed to be defamatory to the Thai monarchy.

The authorities are now targeting younger activists, who have become more politically active over the years. According to TLHR, 267 minors under 18 faced criminal charges in 166 different cases related to political protests in 2021.