‘Our culture has changed’: young Thais boycott graduation ceremonies

Students who speak out against royal family’s role in universities face jail but can also be pressured by pro-monarchy parents

When 24-year-old Krai Saidee returned to his alma mater Chiang Mai University on 14 January, nearly two years after his graduation, he came not just to support his friends but 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 are refusing 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,” said Krai, referring to demonstrations that erupted in 2020 calling for reforms to the powerful monarchy.

Related: Thai king flies to Germany as monarchy reform calls persist

Two of Krai’s friends and fellow protesters were arrested during the January protest but released that same day after paying a fine. Many who speak out against the monarchy aren’t as lucky. Thailand’s infamous lese majeste law, which prohibits insulting members of the royal family, is punishable with up to 15 years in prison.

Despite the risks, Krai said he would continue protesting against the monarchy, with another demonstration scheduled for March. “I’m planning to give some gifts to the graduating students,” he said, adding that he didn’t know what the gifts would be yet, but promised they would be “something political”.

“It’s my duty to open the space for young artists and for my friends,” he said, claiming that some of his friends who felt they had to attend the January ceremony thanked him for speaking out.

Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said the arrests might make “martyrs” of the activists and therefore “could succeed in encouraging more students to boycott graduations overseen by royalty”.

Freelance 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 that are more angry.”

But it’s not just legal repression that activists have to worry about – many also face pressure at home.

Chambers said that “people of all ages in Thailand are divided regarding monarchy” but “most Thais who venerate the monarchy do come from older generations”.

Related: Thai court rules calls for curbs on monarchy are ‘abuse of freedoms’

“Parents tend to want to see their sons and daughters attend the rituals of graduation, but these have traditionally been overseen by monarchy so many parents do not mind if royals oversee the ceremonies,” Chambers said.

“I argue a lot with my mother,” Panita said, because she was more pro-royalist.

Panita said she identified as “anti-royalist” 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.”

Luckily for Panita, she had a readymade excuse for her family, because her graduation ceremony took place the same day as her sister’s wedding rehearsal.

In Krai’s case, his older sister had already skipped her graduation because of the cost. “I just told my family that it’s about the money,” he said.

Thai king Maha Vajiralongkorn leaves after leading a graduation ceremony at Thammasat University in Bangkok in 2020
Thai king Maha Vajiralongkorn leaves after leading a graduation ceremony at Thammasat University in Bangkok in 2020. Photograph: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

Graduation ceremonies can be expensive endeavours, with many students shelling out to hire a photographer, a make-up artist and a hair stylist and renting uniforms. The royal family also profits from the ceremonies.

“The monarchy makes a great deal of money overseeing graduations so I doubt this practice will end any time soon,” Chambers said, adding that if the monarchy were to cave in to protester demands on this issue, it could “encourage the students to press more”.

Boycotts of the graduation ceremonies appear to have picked up steam in recent years. When 35-year-old designer Sina skipped his ceremony more than 10 years ago, 90% of his peers attended, he said. In comparison, Krai said only around 50% of people attend the ceremonies today.

Related: Apple tells Thai activists they are targets of ‘state-sponsored attackers’

“In that time people didn’t realise about all this, nobody talked about the monarchy,” Sina said.

In response to the shifting tides, some royalist business owners tried to start a campaign encouraging people to refuse to hire recent graduates that can’t produce a picture of themselves receiving a diploma from the royal family.

“I think that it’s good for those students that they are not going to work with those kinds of people,” Panita said, adding that she didn’t think the campaign would catch on.

Sina agreed, saying: “They don’t know that people have already changed, that our culture has changed, so they just keep saying the same things that worked before, but it doesn’t work any more.”

Using another example, Sina said that in the past, nearly everybody stood out of respect during movie screenings, when a clip played in honour of the king. Today Sina estimates that only around 10% stand.

“More than 10 years ago the royalists would pour soda on the people that didn’t stand, but I don’t see any of that any more,” he said. “Now if you stand up, you would be like a person stuck in time.”