BANGKOK — At a military facility outside Bangkok, a drill sergeant barks orders at a group of film students learning the hard way that creative license has its limits in Thailand.
“You are here to learn discipline,” the officer shouted. “Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir!” shouted back the group of 53 aspiring artists—boys with shaggy hair, girls with tattoos and yoga pants.
“Discipline means respecting the rules and regulations,” he told them. “If you misbehave, you must be punished.”
In military-ruled Thailand, this is how university hazing is handled. The offense: a video posted online that showed a half-dozen fully clothed freshman doing an erotic couples dance as upperclassmen cheered. Social media dubbed it a “love-making dance.” The punishment: three days of boot camp for a new type of disciplinary punishment known as “attitude adjustment.”
The military junta that seized power over a year ago pioneered the idea of “attitude adjustment” as a technique to silence critics. The junta summons politicians and others who voice dissent to military bases where they are typically incarcerated several days, interrogated and made to “confess” to their transgressions and sign a contract to not repeat them—a practice that has been widely criticized by human rights groups.
Now there are signs that the mentality of military rule is being applied to civilian issues—like college discipline.
For the students from the film school of Bangkok’s Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University, a three-day boot camp included reprimands, public humiliation and a grueling endurance test.
“We’re not telling our film students don’t make creative films, but in Thailand there are social limits. They need to be creative within the limits,” said Chin Tangtarntana, a lecturer in cinematography and one of several professors who chaperoned the 3-day session last month that included silent meals and group lodging on a barrack floor lined with mattresses. “We have to reset their clocks. That’s why we’re here, to rewind. We’re saying, ‘Go back. Start over. OK, now be creative.'”
After a 2-hour bus drive northeast of the capital to the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, a 33-square-kilometer (20-square-mile) facility surrounded by mountains, the students’ cellphones were confiscated to ensure no outside communication and primarily to prevent more videos, Chin said.
“The activities that will take place here will be good for you, and help you to become civilized people. Do you understand?” the drill sergeant, Sgt. Maj. Kongsak Klaeiklang, asked rhetorically. He led what he called an “ice-breaking” session that bore close resemblance to hazing: An overweight female student was singled out as a “hippopotamus” as others were told to “dance like hippos.” Team games ended with the losers ordered to “walk like elephants,” bent over in a human chain, clutching each other’s hands between legs.
Then they were driven to a steamy, mosquito-infested jungle. Under a steady rainfall, the students were put through a different type of hazing.
Loud bangs exploded in the distance, and the students were ordered to run.
“Faster! Just keep breathing, you won’t die,” shouted Kongsak, after one student nearly fainted and was allowed to sit on the sidelines. He then ordered them to “DROP!” and crawl on their stomachs through muddy puddles and at one point to hurdle a barricade of fire.
“The idea is to break them down. Break down their ego. Humiliate them. And then we build them back up,” Kongsak said, as soldiers led small groups on an arduous 5-kilometer (3-mile) jungle trek that included scaling rope ladders and balancing on swinging logs to cross a river.
The boot camp incident sparked little public uproar in a country where the education system has always had a militaristic streak—public schools have mandatory uniforms, hair must be kept short and some teachers still wield bamboo canes to enforce discipline through secondary school. Problem teens in violent high-school gangs have been sent to boot camps in the past.
But using the military to punish university hazing is a new approach, which commentators say sends a chilling message that the military is needed to solve society’s problems even at institutions of higher learning.
“This order to the students to report to a military base is at least as inappropriate as the hazing incident,” the Bangkok Post said in a recent editorial on the subject. The university “lost a little public respect with the hazing violation. It continues to lose even more respect with its reaction.”
The very same university was also home to last year’s infamous hazing ritual, which involved upperclassmen dripping hot candle wax on incoming freshman and burning the arms of several students. But in that case where bodily harm was actually caused nobody was punished, the editorial noted.
Critics say the hazing case highlights a trend toward militarization of Thai society under the junta, where those in charge don’t believe that “attitude adjustment” will actually brainwash people—but the aim is to intimidate and discourage the outspoken from speaking out.
The former army chief who led the coup, Prayuth Chan-ocha, and is now serving as interim leader has launched a crackdown on dissent and has blocked public discussions about democracy. He regularly lashes out at those who question his authority and warns the public to stop asking for elections, which he says won’t be held until 2017.
Hundreds of politicians, journalists, professors and other critics have been hauled in for “attitude adjustment” in the name of maintaining peace and order.
“People who say bad things and cause harm with their words, should they say those things?” Prayuth said to reporters last month, defending the latest round of political detentions that included a three-day incarceration of a prominent journalist, Pravit Rojanaphruk, and two politicians. “You cannot oppose me. No one will let you to do that.”
Social commentator Sanitsuda Ekachai called it a sign of the times that the rector of a university chose to resort to military-style “attitude adjustment.”
“When someone in his position believes that militarism is the answer…it explains why the military still retains a strong grip on society,” Sanitsuda wrote in a column for The Bangkok Post. In a separate column, she wrote that educators who rely on military discipline are sending a stifling message: “Those who resist will be punished. The country is heading full force toward being a military state.”
Whether or not attitude adjustment works on students appears to depend on the individual.
An exhausted freshman, Natdanai Kedsanga, 20, ended the first day of boot camp with a realization.
“We were having too much fun, that was the problem,” said about the video in which he was one of the dancers. “Now that I think about it, maybe it wasn’t appropriate.”
Pongpat Puchiangdang, a university senior, said the attitude adjustment had taught him a lesson—if you want to do something socially unacceptable just don’t share it on social media.
“Stuff like this happens everywhere at all schools, and sometimes it’s even worse. They just don’t post it online,” said Pongpat, a 22-year-old aspiring cameraman. “I don’t think making that video was wrong. It’s a good memory. We just shouldn’t have publicized it.”