efe-epaBangkok

A group of young students are trying to raise awareness about, and end the custom of brutal initiation rites or hazing in universities in Thailand.

The rites, that take place under Sotus, or Seniority Order Tradition Unity Spirit, often include humiliating new students or subjecting them to brutal corporal punishments.

The Anti-Sotus organization was formed in 2011 to mobilize opposition against cases of brutality in Thai educational institutions and to raise awareness among students about the dangers of hazing and the ideology that justifies them.

"The first day we (freshmen) were told to queue up and forced to take the shape of a bridge, then we had water thrown on us and were kicked. After that, all of us had to crawl under the "bridges." A professor arrived and stopped that but later they took us to a place without a security camera and kicked us," Kollawach Doklumjiak, a student of political science at Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok, and an activist with Anti-Sotus, told EFE.

Kollawach had also experienced cruel hazing rituals, including hot wax on his private parts, while studying to be an electrician in a vocational training institute in the Thai capital.

"Some of us could not stand it anymore and disagreed with this system but they pressured us until they made us leave the institute," said the 26-year-old.

Kollawach tried to report the students who had tortured him "but the police simply told me to change my institute," he says.

The reason for that, he says is because, "many police officials have the same mentality."

He changed four different vocational training centers and finally sank into a depression that never left him.

"The only other person who paid for that has been my mother, who has taken it very badly," Kollawach adds.

Sotus reflects a deeply rooted mentality prevailing in many educational institutions in the Asian country.

The origins of Sotus are not quite clear although the late Suthachai Yimprasert, a professor at the Chulalongkorn University, had explained in an article published in the Bangkok Post in 2016 that initiation rites in colleges dated back to the early 20th century and traced their origin to the United Kingdom.

Violent hazing practices - including some that ended in tragedies - have continued in Thai universities although they are outlawed in the country.

In 2014, a 16-year-old boy with leukemia had drowned in a beach south of Bangkok during an initiation ceremony, while last year, a group of students of a university in Bangkok beat a young man until his spleen burst.

Not all initiation rites in universities or institutes are violent or involve humiliation, and in many universities, participation in activities to welcome freshers are voluntary.

"There is no Sotus in my faculty, and hazing activities are completely voluntary. It's like a camp where older students help new students to break the ice," says Saharath Phautraungsee, a student of Spanish philology at the prestigious Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

The Sotus ideology and hazing are also prevalent among female students, although they are less violent, according to Peerada Nuruk, an Anti-Sotus activist studying Cultural Management in Bangkok's Burapha University.

"In case of girls, hazing revolves around sex, but there is no longer as much physical contact or aggressive words as earlier although sometimes older students do touch the freshers in an inappropriate manner," Peerada complains.

The 20-year-old student has not experienced hazing but saw how these practices impacted her elder sister's personality.

"I think the Sotus system only serves to distort Thai society; it goes against democracy, human rights and freedom," Peerada adds.

For Kollawach, the Sotus system in universities "is a reflection of wider problems within the Thai society and is based on the deep hierarchies that exist in Thailand."

"Sotus teaches students to be submissive and only serves to undermine their critical spirit and creativity," he added.

By Alfredo Garcia