Hazing Problem in Thai Universities Reflects the Larger Trouble in Thai Social Institutions

Thongchai Winichakul 12 October 2015



Hazing in Thai universities is known as SOTUS. In recent years, SOTUS has frequently made headlines for its notorious consequences, from scandalous actions to the fatality of a few freshmen every year. Calls to end the practice recur every time a scandal breaks out. Defenders of hazing include not only students and prominent alumni, but professors and administrators of universities as well.

The English acronym stands for Seniority Order Tradition Unity Spirit. It is said to be an import from the “West” some time ago. But I cannot find evidence from what institution (a university, a military school, or a boarding school), when, and by whom. Some suggest it was from the US during the 1950s, others say Thai royals who were educated in the UK started it in the early 20th c.

While initiation rites still exist in many US and UK institutions, hazing is now prohibited in most schools, including military ones. A softer version may still be practiced in some particular institutions such as in military and fraternity societies. Other than those, hazing is illegal in higher education.

Interestingly, if one searches on the internet, SOTUS is found to refer to initiation rites only in Thailand, despite its English name. Regardless of its origin, it survives and thrives only in Thailand. Why does hazing – SOTUS – thrive only in Thai universities? Moreover, at a time when Thai higher education is preoccupied with international reputations and ranking, trying to become world class institutions, why do college administrators and many scholars staunchly support the practice instead of getting rid of it to improve their rankings? Is SOTUS merely teen play? Or does it reflect a deeper condition and more serious problem in Thai society?

I would argue that SOTUS thrives because Thai society is fertile soil for hazing. Regardless of its origin, it has been localized. Reborn on Thai soil, it fits and serves Thai conditions productively. SOTUS is Thai. Some suggest that it has flourished even more in the past decade or so. If true, it could mean that it fits and serves Thai conditions in the past decade even better than earlier.

What are the conditions that make Thailand fertile for SOTUS?

I would argue that SOTUS represents and reproduces the two primary modes of social relations in Thai society, namely, hierarchy and the person-based social institutions.

Thailand is a strongly hierarchical society. “Thainess” is first and foremost the attentiveness to hierarchical relations among individuals based on their social positions which can be seniority, class, rank, wealth, gender, or power depending on the particular social relations. Hierarchical relations inform social institutions, i.e. the institutionalized social relations such as in education, law enforcement, the military, the justice system, business, journalism, and so on, making them very “personal” or person-based rather than “impersonal”.

“Personal vs. impersonal” here are two contrasting types of social relations in institutions.

The “personal” means a social institution whose culture and power structure are based on a person’s social position as an essential factor in interactions with others, in decision making and judgements, and in power relations. The personal type includes, though not exclusively, personal relationships, such as nepotism, or patron-client relations. We may call this person-based social relations. This type of social relation is the basis of the patrimonial state.

The “impersonal” means a social institution whose culture and power structure are based on criteria or rules that are independent from personal or person-based relations. There are different forms and levels of criteria or rules in various social institutions, namely, laws, regulations, standards, professional codes, and principles.

In reality, both types of social relations exist in every society and institution on earth. No society can survive by only one type. The differences among societies are in the extent and relationship between the two types in society. In other words, what type of social relations is the primary or basic one that informs social institutions in a society, and what is the secondary or supplemental one?

Generally speaking, in a smaller-scale and less complex society, social relations tend to be primarily person-based or personal. Rules and laws can often be flexible or selectively enforced according to the persons involved. Patrimonialism is the mode of power relations. In a larger-scale and more complex society with intricate differences and conflicting interests, social institutions need to be primarily impersonal, adhering to laws, rules, regulations, standards, professional codes, and principles.

Thai society is definitely a complex one. But social institutions remain overly personal and patrimonial. The “who” factor is regularly taken into consideration in applying a rule. Often, it matters more than laws, regulations, professional codes, or principles – the impersonal relations. Professionalism in some institutions, such as journalism and academia, is not adequately developed yet.

In the justice system, for example, what is seen as rampant “double standards” in fact is one standard, i.e. one that depends on one’s social position. No standard at all. Historically, laws and rules in ancient Siam were applied according to the feudal rank of a person. It seems that, despite modernity, the archaic culture persists. The most important principle and professional code are attentiveness to the “who” factor in social hierarchy.

These personal social relations, nevertheless, are also the basis for the charm and attractiveness of Thai society to many foreigners. They love this dimension that is lacking in their societies. Some call these charming social relations as “more human” as opposed to the impersonal institutions which are “less human”. They love Thailand … as long as they are not in trouble with the police or justice system and not caught up in the messy Thai-style democracy.

The entire education system, including higher education, is an infrastructure responsible for the reproduction and sustenance of these person-based, hierarchical relations over generations. The supporters of SOTUS always argue that it is a preparation for the real world. They are probably right. SOTUS creates patronage networks that could last for some people’s entire career. Socially, SOTUS moulds the next generation of members of Thainess. SOTUS crystalizes all major values in real social relations in Thai society into child’s play, namely the importance of seniority or hierarchy, the obedience to power or order, the uncritical acceptance of tradition, the ultimate goal of social relations in unity or harmony, and the spirit or pride in the unique Thainess. SOTUS is a preparation, a practice, and reproduction of established social relations.

As an initiation, SOTUS may seem thoughtless, low, violent, and possibly dangerous. But as an institutional practice to mould teenagers for an authoritarian, hierarchical society, it is a reasonable, caring, and benignly violent training ground. It is an authoritarian playground. Thai universities serve their mission well. Those administrators and academics who staunchly support SOTUS do their jobs very well according to the KPI (key performance index) as required for a university (see below).

Why has SOTUS come back strongly?

Actually SOTUS was in decline since the mid-1970s especially after the 1973 democratic uprising when students rose up to challenge every tradition and institution. A prime target of revolt was SOTUS. In recent years, however, Thai society has turned more conservative. Thainess is heavily promoted both by the state and in civil society. This is partly a reaction to the perceived threats from the West in the form of globalization and reckless capitalism that hurt the country, for instance in the 1997 economic crisis. Another reason for the promotion of Thainess is the increasingly conservative politics and the rise of hyper-royalism in the past 30 years or so.

People become overly conscious about proper behaviour according to one’s position in relation to others. Several public rituals, customs and practices that inform, reproduce, and strengthen hierarchical social relations are invented, revived, promoted and amplified. Many have become extravagant and incredibly more elaborate than ever. Excessive sensitivity to proper behaviours and rituals of hierarchy becomes a norm. This trend of excessive performance of hierarchy in the past few decades is palpable in educational institutions. The following examples are mere segment of the theatrical society.

The list goes on. In this environment, SOTUS is also back strongly. In the past month alone (August-September 2015), two incidents tell how strong SOTUS and the authoritarian culture are in Thai education. In the first one, a school teacher hit a student at his head for the latter’s protest against the school fee for the SMS messages the school sends to students. After the video went viral, the teacher made a clear pubic statement that he admitted his fault for hitting the kid but would not apologize for doing his duty according to his conscience of a teacher. He meant that a teacher’s duty and conscience is to groom a student who is obedient to teacher, to school and to power. Hence the justified punishment, though excessive.

In the second incident a professor criticized SOTUS at her campus. Then quite a number of students, alumni and professors at her school and beyond reacted vehemently to her criticism, including threats of sexual assault and violence. As if the matter was not ugly enough, the next day a top university administrator refused to protect her, saying that it was a personal matter unrelated to the university. Instead, he implicitly defended the students’ behaviour. These cases are the extreme symptoms but they are not exceptions.

Perpetuating social malaise

The problem is that the hierarchical and authoritarian social relations and the personal or person-based social institutions that SOTUS helps reproduce is a serious cause of the malaise and social ills that permeate every major social institution in Thai society. The ugliness of SOTUS and the damage it regularly causes are also a microcosm of the larger society.

Take Thai academia as example. It too has been corroded by Thainess and person-based social institutions. It is well-known that academic promotion depends not only on academic merit but also on political or personal relations between the junior and the senior. A top-level promotion is usually highly politicized and personal, i.e. depending on connections, favours and acquaintances, or the opposite. The rule of thumb for scholarly criticism is to recognize the social position of the person whose work one is commenting on, hence the Thai-style culture of criticism. Respect may not be enough as reverence is often required. Even the academic cardinal sin – plagiarism – can be protected or sheltered for years if the wrongdoer has good connections or is senior. In addition to this everyday culture in the academy, the explicitly anti-democratic politics of most university administrators in the past decade and the conservative trend discussed above make life in Thai academia altogether precarious for critical scholars. No guarantee for academic freedom and denials of promotions are known. Even expulsion for political views has taken place.

In a society where personal social relations are excessive, good academia and good media are hard to achieve since merit is overlooked, and professionalism is trumped. Indeed any social institution can be strong only in a non-authoritarian condition, in horizontal social relations, and under impersonal relations. In Thailand today, the malaise as described is at epidemic levels in the military, police, bureaucracy, and probably every public institution including, sadly, the justice system. Inefficiency permeates these institutions from top to bottom because their personnel are, by and large, recruited, socialized, promoted, and moulded not by professional standards, but by nepotism, connections, and favouritism. And the culture of personal and hierarchical relations has been in place for generations. It is not capable of handling complex and sophisticated business.

The inefficiency has recently borne serious results. The infamous ones include the downgrade of the Thai aviation industry by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) due to its failure to meet safety standards, the punishment by the US and EU for Thailand’s failure to attend to the problem of human trafficking, and the EU’s warning to the Thai fishing industry plus the growing sanctions by businesses in the US and EU markets against fishery products from Thailand due to the chronic problem of slave labour on Thailand’s fishing fleets. In every case, it appears that the relevant Thai authority is aware of the problems but has been negligent for years. The Thai police are notorious in their unprofessional handling even of major cases under the world’s focus, let alone smaller domestic cases in everyday life. Corruption, too, is the result of this social culture. By taking politicians as the sinners for corruption but ignoring the real problem in every social institution, especially the military and the government bureaucracy, Thais are fooling themselves again.

The saddest consequence of a social institution that relies on allegedly good people is the Thai political system. Thai patrimonialism depends heavily on one charismatic monarch as the pinnacle of legitimacy. With his deteriorating health, the future of the whole country is in the clouds since the super-human king is unlikely to be replicated, hence the crumbling political system. For decades, the king has been considered the pillar of stability in Thai politics. It seems that Thais have yet to learn the lesson that a mortal person cannot be the basis of a stable political institution.


The problem of hazing or SOTUS in Thailand is therefore the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger and more fundamental problem, a microcosm or small scale model of widespread troubles, or a symptom of chronic structural deficiency. Stopping it means confronting the malaise of hierarchical and authoritarian social relations, and modernizing social institutions, especially public ones, by making them more impersonal, adhering to laws, rules, professional codes and principles. In the meantime, if the rankings of Thai universities go further south, the evaluation is justified according to impersonal criteria.


[1]Watch here http://news.voicetv.co.th/thailand/237000.html
[2]Here is the announcement by the university of the event http://w3.chula.ac.th/cuthnews/curel/CU_P005592.html