Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, 20, a Political Science student at Chulalongkorn University, was recently elected to become the president of the traditionally conservative university’s student council despite his outspoken political views. 

A well-known political activist, Netiwit made headlines when he refused to prostrate before statues of the university’s royal founders, kings Chulalongkorn and Vajiravudh, as part of an unofficial first-year tradition. His actions even gained a mention from junta leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who said his actions could “tarnish the reputation of the institution.” 

What does it mean to be elected as the president of Chula’s student council? Does your election say anything of increased political activism among students?

I’m very happy that other students have supported me. I know I have very different opinions but it’s good to know that there are people who support me. I don’t want to say that I bring more positivity to the younger generation just because I’m in this position.

Please discuss the political culture at Chula. Do you think the university is encouraging of different political opinions?

It can be open to expression but students are not very brave to speak out because some faculties have professors that manipulate students a bit. But as for the university itself, it’s very open for students to speak up. The university’s rieb roi [well-behaved] image means that students tend to be very polite and calm, fitting themselves into society’s image. 

Do you think Chula is accepting to change and new ideas?

All universities in Thailand, in my opinion, are not so open to new ideas. Universities in Thailand are capitalist and see students as customers, while students see the university as providing a service. This isn’t just Chula but all Thai universities. 

How politically active do you feel Thailand’s student body is?

Not as active as they should be. Thais see political discussion as unusual, impolite, or feel it should be for people who sit on councils rather than for regular people to discuss. Thailand is stuck in this cultural mindset where people think it’s rude to have a debate or to express different opinions. We shouldn’t blame the culture or the society because we can think and should think for ourselves. If we are not happy about something then we should try and change it rather than just accept it as the “culture.” The passive education model makes us feel useless, like we can’t change anything. I’d like everyone to stop thinking like that.

We read a piece in the Bangkok Post in which MR Chulcherm Yugala likened you to a cancer in the Chulalongkorn community. How do you feel about that?

Thai education teaches you that if you think differently, it’s wrong. So when the younger generation wants to express different opinions to the older generation, the older generation sees it as the wrong thing to do, like a “cancer.” I always try to prove to the older generation that I’m not the cancer. That I’m not here to be rude to them, but I just have different opinions.

Do you hear students expressing views in private which challenge Thailand’s limits on freedom of speech?

Yes, but not in depth. Thailand does not allow anyone to speak about that topic so I will not speak about it.