Netiwit’s monument gesture fires up internet
activist Netiwit Chotiphatpaisal has stirred up controversy after he and another first-year Chulalongkorn student walked out of a ceremony to pay respects to the monument of the university’s founder, King Rama V.
The event, part of an initiation ceremony for first-year students, includes having students sitting down on the ground and prostrating themselves. Mr Netiwit, who has enrolled in the university’s Faculty of Political Science, said he disagreed with the prostration ritual, which King Rama V himself had abolished.
“My classmates and I were perplexed as to why it persists when King Rama V himself abolished it,’’ Mr Netiwit wrote on his Facebook on July 15 after his decision to walk out kicked up a storm of controversy.
While some people including university lecturers and Chulalongkorn alumni said his action would help kindle debate on the cultural aspects of this ritual, many people have condemned his act as insulting and showing ingratitude to the former king.
Renowned royalist MR Chulcherm Yagala was among those who slammed Mr Netiwit’s action, urging Chula students and alumni to fight off the “cancer” in Chulalongkorn University’s community.
Mr Netiwit, however, said he could not understand why the university would carry on with a ritual that the king had specifically ordered be scrapped in front of his own monument.
“There is nothing wrong with traditions,” Mr Netiwit wrote. “However, following them without [intellectual] principles would be tantamount to doing things blindly,” he said.
After discussing with his friend what King Rama V had proclaimed, he decided he wanted to fulfill the King’s wish. He and his friend recited a pledge of alliance to the university, then stood up and stepped to the front of the gathering to bow to the monuments of King Rama V and King Rama VI, before walking away from the ceremony.
Mr Netiwit said he wrote the Facebook message because he wanted people to understand his actions, to avoid unwarranted accusations.
He claimed it’s not just him and his friend who disagreed with the idea of students prostrating in front of the monuments of the past kings. He said many students believed the ceremony did not sit well with the heritage of both King Rama V and King Rama VI who were credited with modernising the country during their reigns.
“No-one wanted to express their idea so we showed them through our own action,” Mr Netiwit said.
He insisted he walked out not to cause a stir but to provoke debate.
‘’Chula should talk about this issue as it seeks to preserve good traditions that are suitable for new generations and modern society, as the university celebrates its 100th anniversary as a pillar of the kingdom,’’ Mr Netiwit said.
He signed off his post with a message: ‘’With deep respect from two Chulalongkorn University students.’’
Mr Netiwit’s action has sparked a storm of debate both on his Facebook page and in larger society.
Many people said the university did not force students to participate in the ceremony. They said if Mr Netiwit did not agree with the event, he should not have taken part in the first place.
Several people including some lecturers said the ritual is an expression of people’s faith. They argued Mr Netiwit should not have insulted other people by snubbing it. Some also told Mr Netiwit to quit if he disagrees with the university’s tradition.
Some people said they understood the message that Mr Netiwit was sending, but urged the student to tone down his criticism of what he sees as backward traditions. Others, however, suggested the young man is looking for trouble.
Writer and editor Vichak Panich said he admired Mr Netiwit’s courage in expressing his disagreement with the university’s pledgemaking tradition in a creative way.
‘’The sight of him standing in front of his peers, giving a bow to the monuments and the gathering as well, could provoke an awareness that is very crucial,’’ Vichak said.
He also expressed his disagreement with people who suggested in online posts that Mr Netiwit deserved to be punished by being thrown from a certain height — a punishment meted out to some students in the past, including the late scholar and fellow Chula student Jit Phumisak.
Vichak said the yone bok punishment should be a matter of shame for Chula.
ML Chulcherm said King Rama V’s announcement abandoning the tradition of crawling and prostrating was only applicable to people who were present in his audience.
He said the case of Chula students paying respect to his monument is a different story and only those with a ‘’dirty mind’’ would consider it inappropriate.
The royalist wrote in response to criticism from Thai studies scholar Sulak Sivaraksa who said MC Chulcherm has no right to bully ordinary citizens.
Mr Sulak also said the royalist should heed the order by King Rama V cancelling the tradition of crawling and prostrating.
‘’The student was following the king’s directive. Was the Mom Chao not aware of it? Why was he saying insensible things?’’ Mr Sulak said on Facebook.