When Krai Saidee, 24, returned to her alma mater, Chiang Mai University, on January 14, almost two years after graduating, she came not only to support her friends, but also to make a political statement.
Painted gold, he held up a sign attached to a graduation gown: “You took my dream and gave me this,” the message read.
Krai is part of a growing number of young Thais who refuse to attend their graduation ceremonies because they are presided over by members of the royal family.
“The protests taught me a lot about the monarchy and how much money goes to the monarchy,” Krai said, referring to the demonstrations that broke out in 2020 calling for reforms from the powerful monarchy.
Two of Krai’s friends and fellow protesters were arrested during the January protest but released that same day after paying a fine. Many of those who speak out against the monarchy are not so lucky. Thailand’s infamous lese majesty law, which prohibits insulting members of the royal family, is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Despite the risks, Krai said he would continue to protest the monarchy, with another rally scheduled for March. “I’m planning to give some gifts to graduating students,” he said, adding that he didn’t yet know what the gifts would be, but promised they would be “something political.”
“It is my duty to open the space for young artists and for my friends,” he said, noting that some of his friends who felt they had to attend the January ceremony thanked him for speaking up.
Paul Chambers, a professor at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said the arrests could turn activists into “martyrs” and thus “could succeed in encouraging more students to boycott royal-supervised graduations.”
Independent actress Panita Hutacharern, 26, who refused to go to her graduation in 2017, said: “There will be people who are more afraid, but there will also be people who are more angry.”
But it’s not just the legal crackdown activists should be concerned about, many also face pressure at home.
Chambers said that “people of all ages in Thailand are divided on the monarchy,” but “most Thais who revere the monarchy come from older generations.”
“Parents tend to want to see their sons and daughters attend graduation rituals, but these have traditionally been overseen by the monarchy, so many parents don’t care if royalty oversees the ceremonies,” Chambers said. .
“I argued a lot with my mother,” said Panita, because she was more pro-realistic.
Panita said she identified as “anti-realistic” and that attending her graduation ceremony would have been “a waste of time.” “I don’t know why the royal family has anything to do with our graduation.”
Fortunately for Panita, she had an excuse ready for her family, because her graduation ceremony was held on the same day as her sister’s wedding rehearsal.
In Krai’s case, her older sister had already failed to graduate due to the cost. “I just told my family it’s about the money,” he said.
Graduation ceremonies can be expensive endeavors, as many students pay to hire a photographer, makeup artist, and hairstylist, and rent uniforms. The royal family also benefits from the ceremonies.
“The monarchy makes a lot of money overseeing graduations, so I doubt this practice will end anytime soon,” Chambers said, adding that if the monarchy were to give in to protesters’ demands on this issue, it could “encourage students to push harder.”
Boycotts of graduation ceremonies seem to have gained momentum in recent years. When designer Sina, 35, skipped the ceremony more than 10 years ago, 90% of his peers attended, he said. By comparison, Krai said only about 50% of people attend the ceremonies today.
“At that time people didn’t realize all this, no one was talking about the monarchy,” Sina said.
In response to the changing tides, some realistic business owners tried to start a Bell encouraging people to refuse to hire recent graduates who cannot produce an image of themselves receiving a diploma from the royal family.
“I think it’s good for those students who aren’t going to work with those kinds of people,” Panita said, adding that she didn’t think the campaign would be successful.
Sina agreed, saying, “They don’t know that people have already changed, that our culture has changed, so they keep saying the same things that worked before, but they don’t work anymore.”
Using another example, Sina said that in the past, almost everyone stood up out of respect during movie screenings, when a clip was played in honor of the king. Today Sina estimates that only about 10% remain standing.
“More than 10 years ago the royalists poured soda on people who didn’t stop, but I don’t see any of that anymore,” he said. “Now if you stand up, you would be like a person trapped in time.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism