IDIOTS IN UNIFORM
By Andrew Biggs
I was witness to a seething mass of white shirts while sitting in Ekamai traffic this week.
Yes, white shirts. They can be more dangerous and violent than any pack of red shirts at Ratchaprasong or yellow shirts at the airport, especially if you happen to be on a bus on Sukhumvit Road minding your own business.
They are students. Male students, running down Sukhumvit Road not unlike stampeding buffalo.
Those at the front they were carrying sticks and rocks, weapons of choice for 17-year-olds who haven’t saved up enough for a gun.
The rest? They moved along with blank faces. From the looks on their faces not much was sparking and synapsing up top, save for the logistics of getting their legs to run, right left, right left, right left.
I didn’t catch a glimpse of which school they were from, nor did I see their enemy, but I knew the story. The students were waging a war against an identical institution.
The story repeats itself everywhere. Somtam Vocational College (SVC) is situated close to Kaiyang Vocational College (KVC). Both offer the same curriculum; the college classrooms are in the same-looking faded concrete buildings.
Students even dress the same. Man, at least the red and yellow shirts can tell each other apart!
Standard uniform for colleges and high schools in Thailand is a white shirt and dark trousers. Not very imaginative, I know, but the white shirt is clean and the dark trousers can be flattering if you’re bordering on obese.
Despite this uniformity, if one SVG student as much as gives one KVC student the wrong look, rocks, stones and sometimes gunshots shatter the windows of public buses as all hell breaks loose.
And all this in the name of preserving the “integrity” and “dignity” of the school.
Student rivalry is universal. I went to an Anglican private school across the creek from a Catholic School.
I was taught from the word go that those Catholics were a weird bunch. They weren’t allowed to use condoms and they had to confess their sins every Sunday – this is information I learned from the age of 10, way before I even knew what a condom was used for, let alone what a real sin was.
“Cattle ticks!” we used to shout from our safe vantage point on one side of the creek.
“Dirty Anglicans!” Catholics kids would shout back.
There was even rivalry at university level, though we didn’t have the luxury of a uniform to know who our enemies were. I used to go dressed in board shorts and T-shirt while the girls wore leggings and crucifix jewelry thanks to some singer who’d just put out a song called “Holiday”.
Here in Thailand, college and university students are compelled to wear uniforms. You’d think this would blur the rivalry between institutions but it’s the opposite.
There are two inner city Bangkok colleges. One is called Uthen Thawai (actually a campus of Ratchamangkhala University of Technology), and the other is Pathumwan Institute of Technology.
See? Both Institutes of Technology. With the same name, they should get on famously … not.
These are two colleges where students even have the one very clear goal, and it has nothing to do with education. That goal is to kill students from the other institution.
Perhaps more than just one goal. Students are also urged to dismember, maim and injure.
It’s been going on for more than seven decades, and I tried finding out mortality figures on this.
“Call Uthen Thawai and Patumwan and find out how many students have been killed or injured over the past ten years,” I told one of my staff members this week. My staff member quickly feigned illness and was gone for the rest of the day.
There is no reason for these two colleges to hate each other, other than “tradition”. It is like the court case in Dicken’s Bleak House that has gone on for so long, nobody remembers why each party is suing the other.
Earlier this month a Pathumwan student was jailed for the murder of an Uthen Thawai student he didn’t even know – the kid was just wearing the rival belt buckle on a public bus.
(The verdict was handed down the same week Uthen Thawai celebrated its 78th anniversary with the help of 300 police dispatched to keep the peace. What a fun celebration that must have been.)
During a hazing ceremony not so long ago, one Uthen Thawai freshman was killed by the seniors holding the event – because he was suspected of having been a Pathumwan spy.
I can’t tell an Uthen Thawai and Patumwan student apart. Both wear practically the same uniform, are of the same age, have the same build and moronic expression, and come from the same country.
So who teaches these guys to loathe?
It starts with the orientation ceremony known as hazing. Any new student to a college or university here is subjected to all sorts of crazy antics in the name of “building team spirit” and “getting to know one another.” These include stripping down naked, singing the college song for six hours on end, and performing humiliating acts for the purpose of building team spirit.
Freshman die regularly at such events. Only last month we had the family of a first-year student on television demanding to know why their son came back from a two-day orientation camp in a coffin.
It is at these orientations that the new Uthen Thawai students are taught by their seniors how evil the Pathumwan students are. Meanwhile, the Pathumwan seniors are explaining how evil the Uthen Thawai students are to their freshmen.
Such information is often reiterated by the institutions themselves. Nothing, but nothing is more important than the “dignity” of the school, whatever that means; I don’t understand it in Thai or in English.
Those poor freshmen. Being taught blind devotion to an institution against their will.
But I am wrong in thinking that.
It turns out freshman are active participants in these rituals. They like them! They like to be humiliated, tortured and beaten by seniors. They like to sing the institution song for hours, and in the end they like to be part of a collective pack that can rise up and destroy the “enemy” … whichever interchangeable enemy that may be.
That to me was a bit of a depressing revelation, and one I thought about this week as the white shirts criss-crossed the stalled Sukhumvit traffic.
Run on, young children. Hurtle yourselves down Sukhumvit Road in your quest to preserve the dignity of your institution by throwing rocks and stones.
Just don’t look so blank-faced while carrying out your violence. That kind of scares me the most.