Racy posters spark uniform debate at Thai university

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 16, 2013

The ongoing debate on student uniforms takes a racy turn, as one student’s poster campaign challenges the necessity of uniforms at Thammasat University.

They’re a common sight everywhere you go: young women in white blouses and black skirts or young men in white dress shirts and black dress pants, sometimes with belt buckles (in the case of the girls only held by a few binder clips) or pins sporting their university logos.

Thailand is one of the very few countries left in the world – next to neighboring Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – that requires students to wear uniforms even at university level. While the wearing of uniforms is mandatory at every academic institution in the country, how strict the rules are enforced varies from place to place and is mostly up to the teaching personnel.

And every now and then there is some controversy about the outfits students are wearing, mostly about their interpretation. For example back in 2009, the directors of the nation’s top tier universities Chulalongkorn and Thammasat in Bangkok complained about female students wearing uniforms that are “too sexy” and “inappropriate” – a publicly announced clampdown by both universities fell flat. Then in 2011, a similar short-lived uproar by education officials took place after a Japanese news website poll listed Thailand’s student uniforms as “the sexiest in the world.”

However, the questions about the necessity of uniforms at higher education level and its effects on student performance is rarely asked.

Three of the four posters created protesting the mandatory student uniform at Thammasat University in Bangkok. The captions read: “Were you required to wear a uniform at your last midterms?” and “When student uniforms are being challenged” and “Free humanity from the shackles.” Pics: Facebook

Several posters were plastered across notice boards in early September at Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus on the northern outskirts of Bangkok. The four different motives have slogans such as “Isn’t sex more exciting with student uniforms?”, “Were you required to wear a uniform at your last midterms?”, “When student uniforms are being challenged” and “Free humanity from the shackles” while depicting couples (both hetero and homosexual) having sex.

These were the creation of a transgender female liberal arts student at Thammasat University nicknamed “Aum Neko”, who shows her opposition to the mandatory uniform rule after it emerged that students were not allowed to take part in an exam in a compulsory freshmen course as they were not wearing the required uniforms.

In the Bangkok Post, she explains the reasons for her protest and why she chose the provocative motives:

“Personally, I believe in liberalism. I believe that ‘forcing’ students to wear uniforms at university level is an insult to their intellect and humanity. You are using the power of uniforms to control, not only their bodies, but their behaviour and thoughts.” About the provocative posters, in which she poses as one of the models, Aum Neko said that the main concept is to tie the uniform, which traditionally represents goodness and morality, together with sex, which represents wickedness, something that shouldn’t be expressed.

Uniform opinions“, Bangkok Post, September 11, 2013

An extensive interview with Prachatai goes more in-depth about the motives and themes of her posters, explains why no fellow female students were taking part in the campaign and what she believes her university is supposed to stand for.

Unsurprisingly, the poster campaign has sparked debate on social and mainstream media on the necessity of student uniforms, but also about the ‘inappropriateness’ and shock value of the posters – with plenty of support and condemnation towards Aum. Thammasat University announced that it will conduct a disciplinary review of her actions (she caused another stir last year by casually posing on the lap of the statue of the university’s founder Pridi Banomyong), as some social media users are calling for her expulsion. However, Thammasat will also set up a committee consisting of lecturers and students to “to investigate the issue and come up with solutions.”

The story also raises the question whether or not the university is still maintaining it’s liberal-democratic roots, as its students have historically been politically active in the past – but the internal debate on the lèse majesté law (which bizarrely featured journalism students protesting against the reformists) has put the institution at odds with itself.

While on the surface the debate over student uniforms may appear to be just a superficial issue, it is one of many aspects in Thailand’s militaristic education system that reinforces uniformity and obedience, since for Thai conservatives these are still the most important characteristics of our education – while Thailand’s society has changed and is more than ready to move on.