University ousts student leaders over choice of speakers

Authorities of Thailand’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University have used their academic powers to remove two senior university student union leaders from office in a move that student unions across the country say is in violation of academic freedoms and democratic principles.

Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a well-known political activist, was ousted from his position as president of the university’s student union, along with the union’s vice president Pitchakorn Roeksomphong.

The university’s actions followed a university disciplinary committee investigation into the union’s invitations to three political activists, known for being critical of the Thai monarchy, to speak via video link at a campus freshmen orientation event in July last year.

The speeches were recorded by prominent student protest leaders Parit ‘Penguin’ Chiwarak, recently released on bail after over six months in pre-trial detention, and Panusaya ‘Rung’ Sithijirawattanakul. They both led mass protests in Thailand in 2020 calling for reforms, including reform of the Thai monarchy. The third speaker was Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a university professor in exile since the military takeover in 2014, who runs a Facebook page critical of the monarchy.

Critics of the royal family

All are facing lèse-majesté charges for publicly criticising the Thai royal family, which is considered taboo in the country and can lead to prison terms of up to 15 years.

In an 18 February order, the university committee ruled the orientation event “without prior notice to the Office of Student Affairs” was “insufficiently supervised”. It was described by the Office of Student Affairs as having been delivered in a manner that was “vulgar and rude” as one of the speakers urged students to “show the middle finger” to the administrators as a gesture challenging the authorities.

Their actions “damaged the university’s honour and the actions harmed the preservation of harmony, public order, and the university’s reputation” in ways “incompatible with Thai culture and practice”, according to the order signed by Chaiyaporn Puprasert, the university’s deputy rector.

“I was ousted from office by a coup d’état by the university’s administrators. The administrators of this prestigious university do not care about the more than 10,000 students who voted me into office. It is clear that they neither respect principles of liberty nor democratic principles,” Netiwit told University World News.

Outrage among student groups

The university deducted ten merit points each from Netiwit and Pitchakorn, resulting in the immediate termination of their terms on the student council.

According to Chulalongkorn University regulations, students have 100 conduct points as they enter the university. Minor discipline infractions such as wearing inappropriate university uniforms can result in a deduction of five points. Students who accumulate 20 deducted points are automatically disqualified from running for the university’s student council and student union.

The university’s move has provoked outrage over the way it has intervened in student union affairs – the second time Chulalongkorn University has sought to remove Netiwit from the prominent position after a previous attempt in 2017.

Chulalongkorn University Students’ Union publicly opposed the university’s order, saying the July 2021 event was organised to raise awareness of student rights and freedoms and to encourage new students to be critical of the university’s administration, which it said was permissible under the Constitution.

Student unions and councils from 19 other universities across the country have opposed the Chulalongkorn decision and demanded the order to remove union heads be revoked, saying it violated academic freedom.

Peter Singer, an ethics professor at Princeton University in the United States and a renowned writer whose book was translated into Thai by Netiwit, tweeted in support of the students last week.

“@NetiwitC is a courageous young Thai activist and defender of freedom of expression in Thailand. (He has also started a publishing company and published Thai translations of my books). This dismissal will damage the reputation of @Chulalongkorn U as a centre of ideas.”

‘Politically motivated’

Netiwit said the university’s action was politically motivated and intended to remove him from a position of power. He pointed out that head of the university investigation committee, Assistant Rector Sarayut Supsook, works directly under the current deputy rector who headed an investigation committee that dismissed Netiwit from the student council presidency in 2017.

At that time, Netiwit successfully filed a motion to the country’s Administrative Court for the university to revoke the order, allowing him to run as student union president the following year. In 2021 he won the union election by a landslide with the highest turnout ever in the university’s history.

Netiwit called on the university to dismiss the assistant rector and his staff “who do not care about academic freedom”.

Netiwit said the university has in the past interfered with student activities, banning three books by student editors and calling for an investigation into student publications, including magazines and bulletins, which Netiwit said he participated in developing.

“They interfered a lot in [student] activities. Once they wanted to take over the student union Facebook page, otherwise they would not approve its budget,” according to Netiwit, who added: “These people have no vision. University administrators should understand that students should be represented by the people who understand them.”

Court challenge

Netiwit said he would appeal against the university order within 30 days, asking for an immediate injunction. He also plans to file a motion to the Administrative Court asking for damages amounting to THB2,475,000 (US$76,000) as redress for the loss of his reputation and inability to continue his work in the student union.

Meanwhile, the university’s Office of Student Affairs has prompted a by-election to replace Netiwit and Pitchakorn, an act viewed as an attempt to permanently block them from the union. In response, Chulalongkorn University’s student council appointed Netiwit as an advisor, allowing him to continue to be a part of the students’ governing bodies.

The student union’s leadership is elected by all students at the university, while the student council is made up of four representatives from each faculty and oversees the student union’s activities.

Netiwit has been an activist since he was in high school, when he formed student-led groups such as the Thailand Educational Revolution Alliance and Education for Liberation of Siam which advocated for the reform of the Thai education system, criticised for being based largely on rote-learning and promoting authorities and the existing hierarchy in the country.

He was an outspoken activist against the military regime following the 2014 coup, while campaigning during his university years on various issues such as gentrification and evictions around the campus, supporting transnational activism of the Milk Tea Alliance – a group bringing together other student movements in Asia – during the Hong Kong student-led protests of 2019, and raising funds for humanitarian support for Myanmar and Ukraine.